The wonderful inconvenience of love

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

I love this day so much because this is a day when we can celebrate and praise God for the gift of the strongest force in the universe: love!

Love is the foundation of Christian living. Love is what drives us disciples to do what the world may not ever understand. Love is wonderfully inconvenient. We forgive. We embrace every new person in our life. We abandon our schedules and travel across miles to be present to the hurting; to tell people we love them. We hope for the best for our enemies and pray that they may be well. We run into battle zones, toward the sounds of bombs, if we know a child is in danger.  We lay down our lives for our friends, our neighbors, for strangers we meet along the roadside who are in desperate need of help. We protect and welcome the strangers who are crossing borders, who are fleeing oppression and poverty. We rally in the streets and carry banners that announce love even while folks scowl. We visit the smelly and imprisoned. We give away our food and open up our homes; we share with all our might. We fast and pray for the sake of strangers, for peace in general, for liberation from any power that doesn’t help others feel love. Love is bold and wild and a verb.

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

Over the years many people have turned to me and said that they have never felt God’s presence, that they don’t know God. To this very real heartache I often respond with a question: “Have you ever felt love for another person?” To that, the response is usually “Yes, of course.”Then,” I respond “you have experienced the presence of God without knowing it.”  

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith lives is that we tend to put God in boxes; we expect God to be as small and containable as we are. The truth, though, is that God is beyond measure; God is abundantly good and infinite mystery. We must allow this mystery to surprise us, to move through us, to be revealed in ways we would never imagine.

Once we allow God to be in charge of who we are, we will find that love has us doing all sorts of things that don’t make sense, that will be contradiction to the ways of the world. I love the way Courtney E. Martin describes this:

Just as our lives — especially white, economically privileged lives — have suffered from over-privatization, our notion of love has suffered from an over-interpersonalization. We hear love and we think marriage. Worse yet, in the age of dating apps, we hear love and we think swipe. The commodification and Tinder-ization of love isn’t just bad for our romantic relationships; it’s bad for our nation. We think of love as solely intimate, as tumultuous, as something we choose to bestow or withhold based on someone’s capacity to earn it and keep earning it.

But real love is radical because it cannot be earned or unearned. It is tied to inherent dignity. It is unconquerable because it is dumb in its own way — determined to keep loving no matter what the counter forces, no matter what scarcity small men try to message, no matter what fear they try to sow. It’s blindly trusting, also positioned as stupid in our overly strategic society. It’s inefficient, a sin in our efficiency-obsessed time.

It is perhaps most clearly understood as maternal. Just as mothers have, from time immemorial, loved without condition, we must now love this nation like mothers. We must parent it into a new maturity. We must not give up on it, no matter what. We must be prepared to be surprised at how beautiful it will be. We must do all this without knowing what form it will take, but knowing that whatever it becomes will be rewarding if it is shaped by fierce, unending, active love.

(An excerpt from “The Twin Forces of Love and Resistance” by Courtney E. Martin at OnBeing.org)

On this day, may we embrace the wild power of active love. May we allow love of God and neighbor to take complete hold of us and move us into zones—uncomfortable and cracked—where we never thought we would tread. May we learn what it means to really lay down our lives and experience love’s rising power and imitate Jesus Christ.

I love you all and I thank you for joining me in this wild activity!

 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meditation: “Peace on Earth” is a call to action

Happy Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day to all of you! What are you doing to honor the legacy of Dr. King today?

Please, let us allow ourselves to be disturbed and transformed on this national holiday. This is not a day for sentimental history lessons. It is not a day to rest nor enjoy the comforts of privilege. We cannot afford to rot in complacency.

Rather, we must become students of nonviolence and courageous change makers. Today is a day for contemplation and action; for meditation and community building. Let us effectively scrutinize these times and organize our resistance. Let us lean in to the Spirit to be transformed into true Gospel people. These are the ways we can truly honor Dr. King–and all those who gave up their lives nonviolently for the sake of equality.

Today would be an excellent day to pray with Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace message “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.”

Or, I’d like to invite you to do as I did this morning: listen to Dr. King’s Christmas sermon “Peace on Earth.” As you do, I think you’ll be amazed at how timely his speech is, even though it is from 50 years ago. The sermon remains a call to action!

If you click on the video, you can listen to a recording of Dr. King preaching while you read the text pasted below it. I have bolded particular phrases in the sermon because I believe the words can be instructive to us as we resist the current oppression in the world.

 

Plus, let us pray for each other and for peace for all.

God, transform us and create us anew. Help us be the nonviolent peacemakers your world needs. We rely on you to fill us with strength, grace, and guidance as we struggle in brave love, as we suffer willingly for the day when all people will know your true peace and justice. Work through us, Holy Spirit, and help us to be vibrant in our faith and hope in you. We pray this through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen!

 

 

A Christmas Sermon: Peace on Earth

By Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

December 24, 1967

This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian hope. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power. Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the very destructive power of modern weapons of warfare eliminates even the possibility that war may any longer serve as a negative good. And so, if we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and so let us this morning explore the conditions for peace. Let us this morning think anew on the meaning of that Christmas hope: “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men.” And as we explore these conditions, I would like to suggest that modern man really go all out to study the meaning of nonviolence, its philosophy and its strategy.

We have experimented with the meaning of nonviolence in our struggle for racial justice in the United States, but now the time has come for man to experiment with nonviolence in all areas of human conflict, and that means nonviolence on an international scale.

Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. I have spoken to you before of our visit to India some years ago. It was a marvelous experience; but I say to you this morning that there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with one’s own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with ones own eyes thousands of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. As I beheld these conditions, something within me cried out: “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh, no!” And I started thinking about the fact that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge? in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

Now let me say, secondly, that if we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere. One of the great philosophical debates of history has been over the whole question of means and ends. And there have always been those who argued that the end justifies the means, that the means really aren’t important. The important thing is to get to the end, you see.

So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there? they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.

It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.

Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. And so when we say “Thou shalt not kill,” we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world. Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God, made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such. Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars. One day somebody should remind us that, even though there may be political and ideological differences between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. But in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. In Christ there is neither male nor female. In Christ there is neither Communist nor capitalist. In Christ, somehow, there is neither bound nor free. We are all one in Christ Jesus. And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.

There are three words for “love” in the Greek New Testament; one is the word “eros.” Eros is a sort of esthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way.

Then the Greek language talks about “philia,” which is another word for love, and philia is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people that you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved.

Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word “agape.” Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

If there is to be peace on earth and good will toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations. Something must remind us of this as we once again stand in the Christmas season and think of the Easter season simultaneously, for the two somehow go together. Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than the light, and they crucified him, and there on Good Friday on the cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is an eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again. Easter justifies Carlyle in saying, “No lie can live forever.” And so this is our faith, as we continue to hope for peace on earth and good will toward men: let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of.

And so today I still have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery

About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.

During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.

Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?

With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.

I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…

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

"rowing on Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“rowing on Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A sacred reminder

I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.

But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.

I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Frank Eichenberg
“Christ of the Breadlines” by Frank Eichenberg

Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye Houseworked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action.  Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path.  We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.

The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”  

At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.

Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?  

First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.  

While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.

Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.  

Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”

The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.

 

action-jpg
Twins opener blockade action (courtesy of Joe Kruse)

Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”

 

About the Rabbler Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.”   – Rumi

“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”

This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately.  Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience.  But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.  I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail.  He does not remember.  Do you?  Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago.  Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray.  As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly.  At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face.  By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!”  The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”

That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week.  As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment.  It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way.  The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation.  I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.  

“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.”  But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”

“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again.  I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it.  There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.”  One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking.  My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast.  I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child.  Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.”  Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh.  How did Mary feel?  Was she exhausted and exasperated?  Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles?  Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands.  It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.

The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle.  My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry.  I say more “no’s” than necessary.   I am not the person or parent I want to be.  Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence.  Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says.  “I can’t, my sweet boy.”  A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.”   Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence.  In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.”  However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

A “woke” Joseph and the great Christmas challenge

Merry Christmas!

With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.

We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.

Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like

“Stay woke.”

“The woke people give me hope.”

“Now that I’m woke I can’t go back.”

If you’re not familiar with the modern colloquialism, my friend Sister Nicole Trahan offered a lovely reflection on what it means to “be woke” for Global Sisters Report in June.

Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.

This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.

Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:

When Joseph awoke,

he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him

and took his wife into his home.

He had no relations with her until she bore a son,

and he named him Jesus.

~ Matthew 1: 24-25

sleeping-Joseph-baby-Jesus--catholicprayercards.org
“Sleeping St. Joseph” (courtesy of www.catholicprayercards.org)

A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.

We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.

We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.

The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?

And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”

Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.

Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!

Merry Christmas!

Casting a vote beyond the political haze

For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.

I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.

Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.

Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”

As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:

Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.

I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.

Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:

No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?

There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.

~  From “Jesus for President 2012” by Shane Claiborne, Huffington Post

With such writings in his past I was amused, then, when Shane Claiborne tweeted that he will vote for president during this election:

 

Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.

I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.

I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)

I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.

No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.

Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.

Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)

With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.

By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas - Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213
By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas – Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

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.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

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.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole 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).

Unprofessional

I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.

mom-baby-working-computers
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.

And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.

I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.

baby-filing-Steven-Cottam
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”

I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.

The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.

About the Rabble Rouser:

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

We are one

Daily readings for October 8, 2016: Gal. 3:22-29; Ps. 105:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Lk. 11:27-28

You are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:28

We live in a society that has a tendency to divide us into enemy camps. Violence and squabbles due to differences like politics or culture have become strangely normalized.

No matter what has become culturally acceptable, the Gospel challenges us to live counterculturally. Although some people may avoid those they don’t like or agree with, we reach out to others with love and compassion. While others discriminate against or systematically oppress those who are different because of their race or beliefs, we seek to welcome and appreciate diversity. Such bold actions help us know our belonging in part of an inclusive, universal Church. To embrace and celebrate diversity is central to what it means to be Catholic. As challenging as it may be, when our family of faith unites as one we are obeying the words of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, thank you for the beauty of human diversity and creating us as one. May I recognize and promote our oneness today. Amen. 

photo credit: http://laurengregorydesign.com/projects/united-as-one-sermon-series/
Photo credit: http://laurengregorydesign.com/projects/united-as-one-sermon-series/