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.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice

The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.

One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.

Mostar, Bosnia, a city heavily bombed during during the war in Yugoslavia covered by Chris Hedges while he was a war correspondent (photo by Sophie Vodvarka)

Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.

Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.

I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.

I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.

The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.

This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:

1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.

2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.

3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sophie Vodvarka

Photo courtesy Sophie Vodvarka

 

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

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Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

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Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

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

When Jesus came to the ER

It may have been one of the loneliest moments in my life. I was alone in a small, bare triage room with only an examining table. An armed guard was posted outside the door. My clothes had been taken from me and I was wearing a flimsy gown that opened in the back. I was barefoot. I stayed like this for two and a half very long hours. I felt totally alone.

hospital-bed
Image courtesy freeimages.com

I had just checked myself into the emergency room for depression. Through years of struggle and ups and downs, I had reached a low point. I did not feel capable of keeping myself safe so I turned to hospitalization. What I didn’t know was that in this moment of crisis, while I waited to be examined and for a room to open on the unit, that I would feel so utterly alone and abandoned.

The hospitalization ended up being quite helpful and I was able to get to a better space in my life with more stability. Months later, while I was on retreat, the memory of the small room returned to me in prayer. Through the eyes of prayer, this is what I saw:

I’m alone, sitting on the bare, cold floor. A security guard waits outside the room, keeping watch. Then the door opens and Jesus walks through. Jesus looks like a farmer woman. She’s wearing blue jean overalls and has black curly hair that overflows her tender face. She looks at me and smiles and suddenly, I don’t feel so alone. Jesus walks in the room and sits down on the floor behind me. She encircles me with her arms. I lean back and place my head on her heart. I am surrounded with love. All at once, we are in a beautiful field umbrellaed by a bright blue sky. Instead of a bare, tile floor we are sitting on the soft earth with our feet and hands digging into the dark, rich dirt. We stand up and she takes my hand. We are running in the field filled with stunning wild flowers. I feel free and happy. I know Jesus is with me.

That prayer helped to heal my memory. It also taught me an important lesson. I am never alone. Jesus is always with me. Especially in those moments when I feel most abandoned, there are times that I am most closely accompanied by the Living Christ. When life gets messy, Jesus shows up. This lesson has helped sustain me through other difficult moments and helped me be present to others when they are struggling. It has also taught me about love.

 

lava-flow
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Love is a letting go, a stripping of self, an abandon of control. I also firmly believe that love is the entire purpose of our lives. I see love as an endless stream of hot, fiery lava. In some place or time that lava flows without end. But here on Earth, love crusts over like lava does when it hits cold air. We spend our lives bumping into other people’s crusts. We spend our lives learning how to open up and to love more completely. That is why we are here.

Depression has taught me that through my darkest moments, I am not alone. Even though it is a struggle to always see it, I am deeply loved. Jesus is with me. My friends and family and sisters in community are with me. I still have something to give. I can hold the hand of someone else when they are in the darkness. I can be a small light for them. I can be the voice of love because through experience I know we all walk together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a 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 the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

A complicated patriotism

Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.

Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)

loving Jesus, not the nation (May 30, 2011)
some non-patriotic flag day thoughts (June 14, 2011)
This land is whose land? (July 4, 2011)

I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.

Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.

I really like what Fr. James Martin S.J. wrote in this reflection from last year about the ways that the celebration of any nation should not be elevated above the worship of God and all that God has done for us:

Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).

Photo credit: Freeimages.com

The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.

I appreciate how Christopher R. Altieri put it in his recent piece for America “We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day–but without despair”:

… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.

In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.

Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite welland frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.

But now, if I find myself making any patriotic musiceven half-heartedlyI assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.

I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.

Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

-Luke 4:18-19

 

What we have learned 10 years after Postville, the largest immigration raid in U.S. history

Children in traditional Hasidic Jewish attire run joyfully on the playground. Some of their playmates speak Spanish, others are Anglos with bobbing blond hair. Multiple languages float through the August air under the music. A Mexican band sings and strums its guitars as the sequins on the band member’s sombreros glitter in the sun. I sit with hundreds of people at picnic tables, munching food made by our neighbors: tacos, shish kabobs, falafel, pelmeni, borscht, pierogies, Maid-Rites, venison and pie. There is a sacredness to the event, a holiness to this community. This, I think, is what the reign of God might look like.

But this is not heaven. It is…

[This is the beginning of an article I wrote for America. Continue reading here.]

“2007 Taste of Postville.” Photo credit: http://postvilleproject.org/