Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.
Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?
My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The Mudroom. Continue reading here.]
“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”
My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.
As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.
But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.
Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).
As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”
She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.
I sighed, disappointed.
“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”
She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”
“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).
And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.
And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.
How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?
Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.
“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~Matthew 9:10-11
This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:
“I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”
The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”
I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”
And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.
First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.
Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.
And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.
Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.
Steven 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.
I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.
This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.
We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.
Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks. He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.
In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.
In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”
“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”
This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own. He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.
And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.
So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.
But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”
We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.
Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.
People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.
Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again. It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.
At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.
I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”
Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.
Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?
I suspect the answer is almost every time.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:
Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.
Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.
Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.
Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.
Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.
We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.
The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).
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:
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 Wooldridgehas 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.
“So, you’re Catholic, but you’re married to a Lutheran pastor. How does that work?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question in my seven years of marriage. Depending upon the inquirer, I have a few canned answers that easily roll off the tongue, but the simplest and most genuine is this: “By the grace of God!”
When I boarded a plane bound for Notre Dame 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the journey would…
Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago. Having majored in Theology and International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Nicole shares Sister Julia’s passion for Catholic Social Teaching. Though her goal is to travel the globe (five continents and 24 countries down … everywhere else in theworld to go!), she is happily rooted in the Seattle, Washington area for now while she and her husband raise their two young daughters. Nicole’s 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. When she’s not working part time at a local college or chasing her girls around the house, Nicole enjoys reading spy novels, visiting microbreweries, and discussing black holes. She is extremely grateful to be a part of the Messy Jesus Business family!
Editor’s note: This is the first blog post in the five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda. Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next four installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Nearly 10 years ago, my life and faith were transformed by the experience of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. Though I only lived there for three months, each day burst at the seams with discoveries, challenges and delights, such that those three months occupy an enormous share of my life’s key memories.
A few weeks ago I returned to Uganda with my husband, finally following through on a long-repeated promise to visit my beloved host family. As we danced, laughed, and prayed with our Ugandan family, we were blessed and renewed by the African spirit, a spirit which—I am convinced—suffuses anyone who has the privilege of visiting that beautiful place.
I could probably write a book about the ways in which my Ugandan family has informed and challenged my own discipleship, but I have narrowed them down to five major faith lessons.
Faith lesson #1: always room at the inn
My host family’s house is a veritable revolving door of visitors and guests. Family, friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers, community partners and complete strangers show up unannounced throughout the day, oftentimes requiring a hearty meal and/or a place to sleep.
They are always, always welcomed with enthusiastic hospitality.
Part of this, of course, is cultural: the people of Uganda are renowned across Sub-Saharan Africa for their incredible hospitality. Upon entering any home, you are sure to receive a vigorous greeting: “Oooooh, you are MOST welcome!” is followed by an exchange in which your host clasps your hands for the duration of your conversation. At first, I found this constant physical touch to be somewhat disconcerting, but I came to love the way it signified the full focus of the person with whom I was talking. In Uganda, I never felt like I was competing with a smart phone (and, yes, they do exist there!) for someone’s attention.
My host family, however, takes Ugandan hospitality to another level. Far beyond cultural expectations, they invite people into their home with relentless joy … and into their hearts with unquestioning love. They set a place for their guests at the table, and prepare for them a mattress complete with mosquito net; they invite their visitors into their evening prayer ritual, and thank God for their presence among them. They do this over and over again. Every. Single. Day.
I cannot imagine how exhausted I would be if people dropped in on me with even half the frequency they do to my Ugandan family … But that’s probably because I tend to fixate on frivolous things when I am playing hostess.
My Ugandan family does not fret over unwashed dishes or un-mopped floors; they do not panic if someone has to eat standing up; they do not offer superficial apologies for their cooking. Their guests are not seen or treated as an interruption to plans, because guests are always planned for. My host family takes seriously Saint Peter’s exhortation to “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9) Indeed, they have created in their home a culture of hospitality in which hugging yet another visitor at the end of the day is never a burden, but rather a blessed opportunity to extend their family embrace that much wider.
For reflection: What could I do to foster an attitude of unbridled hospitality in my home and in my heart, such that every opportunity to invite someone in is welcomed as a blessing?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She is profoundly grateful to her Ugandan host family and friends for changing her life a decade ago and continuing to make her a better person today.
Last summer, I sat in a small circle of with other sisters my age at the Giving Voice conference. We were praying in silence, integrating the question our speakers had invited us to consider: What sort of borders do we desire to cross?
In the quiet, I recalled a fear that had surfaced earlier, when I was discerning whether I wanted to make my final vows with my congregation. What if, I wondered, dedicating myself to this particular way of living religious life made it look like I was only saying “yes” to a certain type of Catholicism? What if my yes was heard as a no to other lives and ways of being a woman religious?
As I looked around this circle, I noticed that all of us looked like modern women; many of us wore capri pants, sandals and cross necklaces. I had a lot in common with these women, but I knew that…
On most days at work, I sit down and eat lunch with at least a few people who are, more or less, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. While we agree on many of the problems our country faces, our ideas on how to solve them vary wildly. There are, of course, some issues on which we harmoniously agree, but they seem rare. And in our current political climate, in which nuance is lost and all that matters is who you finally cast your vote for, the candidates for whom I vote are not the candidates for whom my co-workers do. I cannot imagine voting for the people they support.
And I am told that, thus, we are enemies. They are foolish and ignorant; what’s wrong with America. My co-workers are possibly evil, and reasoning with them is of no use. These people must be defeated and crushed—preferably at the polls—but if that fails perhaps more drastic action is needed. And I’m sure this is exactly what my office mates are told about me.
But for the life of me, I cannot see them this way. They might be my political rivals, in some certain contexts, on some certain days when we must both fill out our ballots … but they are also my friends. They are my family. They are good people who live generous and beautiful lives.
I do not fear them. I do not hate them. I love them. And I do not mean this in some abstract, detached way. I know their names, and they know mine. I love them and long for their good and, I truly believe, they long for mine. I work and relax with these people—they have watched my daughter play and grow. On workdays we share the lunch table and on Sunday we gather together around the table of the Lord.
Our divisions only become truly dangerous when we do not know one another. Danger creeps in when we start to fear people as nameless, faceless bogeymen waiting for us in the dark, rather than flesh and blood persons with real names and real stories. With a person, no matter how different they happen to be, you can compromise, you can learn something, you can conspire goodness together. You can’t reason with faceless shadows … you can only fear them, and then hate them.
So my challenge to you is—is there any one person or group that you fear? If so, see if you can break bread with them. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear is the real enemy, and I have found that nothing banishes fear like a sandwich split in two.