On the brink and remaining steady: solid footing in rapid change

“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”  — “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)

Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.

We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.

Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.

Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.

As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge,  we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.

In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:

133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).

134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.

135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.

Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.

Photo courtesy of Charish Badzinski

As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.

Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here.  Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.

. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.

Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .

As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.

No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Ugandan faith lesson #2: make time for the Lord

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a 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 (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.

Ugandan choir
Ugandan choir

Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)

Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.

A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.

Martha: host family cousin
Martha: host family cousin

And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.

During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.

So … What’s my excuse?

For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.

The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.

stewardship and balancing acts

The start of the new school year is energizing, exciting, and quickly approaching. Yet before I can start preparing my classroom and my curriculum for a fresh batch of 9th graders, I’m frantically trying to finish my summer projects.

When I see all the unmet goals on my “Summer List,” I feel sad as the reality sinks in: a lot of those things will have to be put off until the fall. I know the start of a new school year will mean bracing myself for a faster pace and more jammed-packed days ahead.

Transitions cause feelings to emerge and the work of getting ready can be exhausting. Some of my attitudes and hopes about the transition are typical. I want to start off the new school year with good organization and clear structure in place for myself and my students. Certainly, great plans and routines are good ideas for balance, health and student learning. It’s so obvious, but it’s not easy for me.

This time, however, my motives have shifted. I have new reasons for wanting better structure and balance in my life.

Here’s something that is a guide for my desires:

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. – Luke 12: 48b

This reminds me of the responsibility I have to be a good steward and to respond to God’s call. Yes, I’m called to be a wonderful teacher for my students and that includes offering them structure and clearly-defined plans. I’ve learned that I have a responsibility to be a steward of the gifts God has given me. I used to associate stewardship with caring for physical things, like the earth or the vehicle I share with my community. My life is more than the material world, so why did I think stewardship would only include that?

Now, though, I desire balance and structure in my life because I want to take better care of ALL the gifts I have–time, energy passion and talent–along with the material stuff.

So, as the summer winds down, I’m in a period of evaluating what I’m doing with my time and abilities. I’ve learned that if God gives a gift–a talent– it comes with a responsibility to develop it, learn all you can about it and be the best you can be at it. Then you can give your gift back to God in the best way possible. Even if it’s hard work. Whew, not a fun lesson for me because sometimes I just want things to be easy.

Photo by Fritz Liedtke
Photo by Fritz Liedtke

I met great artists this summer who wowed me with their practical advice about balance. It feels a bit embarrassing to admit I’m learning this adult lesson right now, but I really am marveling in them.  I gained a lot from hearing professional artists like Fritz Liedtke speak about balancing their “day job” with art-making. Fritz really seemed to love and value his day job. He spoke about how his money earning informs his art. Because he works at balance, his day job allows him to develop the skills, freedom, time and funds he needs in order to do what matters most to him. Old lesson, new spin: we must balance!

The goals of balance now feel like they apply to me in a new way.  I have come to realize–and to accept–that I have gifts, passions, and struggles I wasn’t attending to before. So, I’m challenged to grow: to be better, to be healthy and to still serve with joy. I need to take care of myself and the gifts I’ve been given so I can be the woman God needs me to be. Good intentions, but easier said than done, of course.

By the grace of God, may the stewardship and balancing acts be good going! Amen!