Lent in a pandemic

I’ve been inside since Wednesday afternoon. 

It all started when a friend, who ministers in New York, texted me to say that someone in his parish was being tested for the coronavirus (or Covid-19) and everyone who attended liturgy with them could be quarantined. I was alarmed. I realized that the epidemic was no longer abstract and distant. I realized that the time to make decisions had arrived. 

I muttered some prayers and then I went online and began reading the news. Updates from the WHO and CDC helped me understand how quickly the virus is spreading, how highly contagious it is, and that it had just been named a pandemic. I also read the recommendation that those with lung disease not venture out for any reason.

Lung disease. My heart sank as I realized I was one of those persons; I am asthmatic. And I live with a sister who is an octogenarian. I felt a responsibility to stay in. So, I told the sisters I live with that I wouldn’t be joining them at the Catholic Sister Week event that night and canceled plans. I hunkered down and settled into acceptance. 

Since then, the impacts of this crisis are being felt by nearly everyone. Most of us will not be able to worship with our faith communities this weekend. Many people can’t receive the Blessed Sacrament at Holy Mass. (Catholic services have been canceled all over the country.) The words of Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2007, come to mind: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”  

Throughout the United States much has changed quickly. Many events, major and small, have been canceled. Classrooms are now virtual. There’s a shortage of supplies. A national emergency has been declared. Much has come to a standstill. And many people are feeling frantic, vulnerable and fearful. It’s a wild time we’re in. 

Wild.

Wild like the Lenten desert, like the land of desolation where Jesus went to pray and fast before he began his public ministry. (Mark 1:12-13)

We are called to accept the reality of the time we’re in and face unmet desires. We have arrived in the Lenten desert by way of a pandemic. 

The Lenten desert is harsh and wild. Much feels unfamiliar and frightening; the sun burns, the water is scarce. You don’t know if you’ll have what you need, or if you will survive. 

In the Lenten desert, we thirst for the Truth, for comfort, and peace. We crave it; we’re hungry. We starve for connection, for love, hope and joy. As we do, we can marvel at the mystery, at our shared humanity and common vulnerabilities. We are able to let go of what is beyond our control. We all need God. 

In a pandemic and in this sacred season, we can let the silence and solitude speak to us; we can each listen deeply to God. We can pray. We can meditate. We can read Scripture and do spiritual reading. Once we turn inward, we could discover that the desert landscape is beautiful and full of life too. 

In this pandemic and in this desert, we discover a sacredness in the slowing, an offering of time. Each of us are given an opportunity to steward the openings we’ve been given. We can notice what is a gift. We can delight in a time to deepen our bond with God.

Surprise, here’s that Lenten retreat you were dreaming about. Here’s that pause you were wanting when ashes were pressed into your forehead and you heard that you are dust, and to dust you will return. 

Photo by Ivars Krutainis on Unsplash.com

As you pray through this Lenten pandemic, I invite you to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit deep in your heart. Remember that Jesus was ministered by angels in the desert; keep in mind that God is also caring for you in this sacred time.

As you open your heart and mind to love, to the challenge of trust and transformation, may you come to a greater awareness of how deeply loved you truly are. You are sacred. You are valued. You are not alone. You are a beautiful and beloved child of God.

Let’s remember that we’re made for community, that this is the Christian way. Let’s reach out to our friends and neighbors; let’s utilize technology for sacred relationships, for community building. Let’s pray together and help each other through our struggles. Let’s encourage one another and be the beacons of hope that others need to see.

Then, united in love and filled with God’s grace, we will all emerge again one day, more fully alive and in tune with the way of Jesus Christ. We’ll be stronger and healthier. We’ll be more grounded and clear headed. We’ll be able to serve with greater courage and love.

This is a time for renewal, preparation and restoration. This is a holy time. 

Here are some offerings for you. Think of this list like finding a well bursting of life-giving water, strengthening you for your time in the desert:

A Coronavirus Prayer by Kerry Weber at America Media

Prayer During Coronavirus by Archbishop José H. Gomez, President of the USCCB

Prayer to Mary During Coronavirus Pandemic by Pope Francis 

Catholic Relief Services Lenten Reflections

Auditory Stations of the Cross by Pray As You Go

Give Us This Day (the Digital version is free right now)

Daily TV Mass Online 

How to Cope With Anxiety About Coronavirus (COV-19) by Amy Morin, LCSW

Faith in the time of Coronavirus by James Martin, SJ at America Media

Pandemic (a poem) by Lynn Ungar

And, lastly, some words from the prophet Isaiah. 

The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Poetry: How do words become flesh?

How do you pray?

Do you pray with hands folded?

Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they smell fresher, lighter?

Do you tell yourself stories of meaning and mystery? Do you let the metaphors dance in the shadows of your bedroom while you remember your past and invent your fate?

Do you pray in the silence? Do you pray with song? Do you pray on the busy streets?

Do you slice up your words and put them into a pot to simmer like stew until they become a nourishment thicker than alphabet soup?

Do you go through doors to places that are wordless, spaces where the only sound heard is the buzz of light warming you? Do you let words illumine you?

Do you pick up your pen and draw circles in your journal? Do you then color those circles in with lines and dreams, a blend of babbles and breath? Do you ask Spirit to help you to make sense of what comes from your imagination, from the cavern of your soul? Do you ask the Spirit to help you make sense of anything?

How do you pray?

Do you pray with poetry or psalms? Do you pray in your sleep? Do you pray under water?

Do you let the word take the shape of your fleshy, wrinkled, brain?

Do words tick in the territory of your heart? Are they fleshy like moving muscle, tightening and expanding and allowing for the flow of living blood?

Do you allow your womb to expand, for the Spirit to write beauty and truth through you?

Do you?

 

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

Adapted for 2019 Women’s Christmas at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center. An essay version of this poem first appeared on the Image blog Good Letters in December 2018 and was inspired in part by How Do You Write? by Richard Chess

Advent: watchfulness, waiting and wanting

In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.  

painting-purple-flowers-tall-grass-ocean-sunrise
Psalm 130 by Janice Little

Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.

My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.

I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” 

The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.  

We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.

Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller.  And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled the desire for the God to whom we belong.

A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.

In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives. 

Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.

This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.  

In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-baby

Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

At a table with other sinners, the Eucharist unites

The first person who taught me eucharistic theology was my Lutheran grandmother. Although I have no memories of her ever uttering the words “eucharistic” or “theology,” she taught me in the way that the best teachers do: by being a living example.

Grandma’s house usually smelled like freshly baked bread. Her counter was often dusted with a layer of flour and she frequently had dough under her fingernails. My grandma structured much of her time around a pattern of stirring, kneading, baking, cooking or serving meals and snacks. No matter who came through the sunny porch, she offered the person a warm hello and an embrace.

Nearly every day at noon, neighborhood kids (along with me, my siblings and cousins) and farmers and friends would squeeze around a large table, where there was always…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Parent in training: a review of “Bless This Mess”

Amy Nee-Walker with her youngest child. Contributed photo.

My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).

Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.

“Bless This Mess” cover photo by Amy Nee-Walker ( #PRHpartner @CrownPublishing)

My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.

All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.

Amy Nee-Walker’s eldest child. Contributed photo.

There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.

Amy Nee-Walker’s second child. Contributed photo.

Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear my baby crying!

Hands of Children. Photo by Amy Nee-Walker

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy 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, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Rejoice with me

 

The Giving Voice National Gathering planning team, from left to right, front row: Kristina Ortega, facilitator; Sr. Lisa Perkowski, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton; Sophie Vodvarka, Giving Voice communications coordinator; middle row: Sr. Kathryn Press, Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sr. Clare Bass, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis; back row: Sr. Mary Therese Perez, Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose; Sr. Julia Walsh, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Sr. Adriana Calzada Vázquez Vela, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio (Provided photo)

Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.

It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…

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

Looking forward

I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.

I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.

I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.

Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.

I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…

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

Photo by Sandra Wattad on Unsplash

Prayer beyond words

I was 10 when it happened. I fell in love with silence.

I was looking for my own church. My mom would drop me off at places of worship for different denominations — Catholic, Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. I think I also went to the synagogue. I would attend a service and no one would talk to me or even notice I was there. One day I went to my friend’s Quaker meeting. It was a group of about six-to-eight people that met in the living room of a house. The worship service was purely an hour of silence. If someone felt lead they could speak a simple message, but a meeting that small was mostly filled with a lot of silence. At the end of the meeting, one of the men rose from his seat and started to shake hands. Then everyone shook hands, exchanging a peace, breaking the silence.

And an amazing thing happened. Adults looked me in my eyes. I felt seen. I felt recognized as a spiritual seeker. I found my spiritual home. I stayed and became quite active in the Society of Friends. I served on committees as a teenager and helped to plan a national gathering. I attended Quaker camps, a Quaker boarding school and eventually a Quaker college where I majored in religious studies. All along, I was falling in love with silence and learning to pray beyond words.

Today that continues. Silent contemplative prayer is part of my daily life. As a Catholic and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, I am now immersed in a prayer form similar to what I discovered when I was 10.

Since August 1, 1878, FSPA has practiced the constant prayer called perpetual adoration. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, we sit in silence and pray beyond words. We adore. We give thanks. We feel our own littleness. We find a peace in our heart that remains with us long after we rise from our seats. We bring that stillness and burning love we find in adoration into our daily lives and all we do.

four-women-in-chapel
Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh, Eileen McKenzie and Linda Mershon

I have to admit; sometimes I do not want to go to my hour of adoration. Sometimes I am tired or bored. It isn’t always all sweetness and light. But that is okay. That is the practice. I get there. I settle in, and slowly I become still. Every hour is different. It is a relationship. I am spending time with my beloved. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes the hour flies by and I find I have spent the entire 60 minutes in total stillness, have not moved a bit. I might be really involved in praying for others, or start to read a prayer, get caught on a word and the whole world opens up. It is a very intimate living time that changes with each experience. Somehow it never gets old.

Thomas Merton says that “Contemplation knows God by seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by him … Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the real within all that is real.”

It is this awakening that I appreciate in those moments of quiet. Here is a video in which I describe seven simple steps to practicing prayer beyond words.

May you be blessed to discover this awakening in your own life!  

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

For We Know Not What We Do

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

The world that surrounds us is daunting,
       too many voices speak truth
       and prophetic words from false prophets
sow division.
God cannot be both compassionate 
       and a defense through which morality props
       up the unjust 

But the most persuasive voices
       can tailor the emperor’s clothes
       to align with God’s will
                or is it man’s?

So that the immigrant is still detained
the prisons overflow
race is divisive
the poor are criminalized
the natural world degraded
walls are built
And weapons are beat not into plowshares, 
      but into proclamations that they alone
      can make us secure.  

The drumbeat goes on

And then, in stillness
      the God who is addressed in prayer
      who is challenged and cursed and loved
      and condemned 

responds:

       Enter into discomfort,
             dispel rational thought
             that has normalized hate,
       and do not tread on the surface,
             but abandon it for the deep

for it is there
that the truth will be uncovered
 revealing that all are created
 in the image and likeness of God
 all are made holy and sacred and just.

It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
    and courageous, 

as though all of the daughters and sisters and mothers 
had preached a holy Gospel that for too long had gone
    unheard in the echo chambers of the ordained
    and the backroom channels of the elected
    and the boardroom coffers
    of an ever-present greed

and the people would plead, 
and the faithful would gather:

We must rise from dust and ashes
      to a sermon on the mount that was once proclaimed
      not mere allegory or callous refrain
      but a prophetic truth that has always been

that has always been until it wasn’t
because we had strayed so far from the road 
      that the Judean was left to rot and decay 
      and Lazarus awoke only to die again
and the fishermen did not walk on water
but capsized in the storm,
      their bodies washed to shore
      not as fishermen, not as disciples, 
but as refugee children drowned 
      and the rich man walked through
          the eye of the needle
      and the mob picked up the pile of stones
      and the loaves and fishes were hoarded away
      and the other cheek was not turned to the side,
              but instead a gun was drawn
              and the bullets pierced those hands
                  that once held nails
And we wept.

For so long we wept and cried out:
  My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

And in reply her voice dispelled any rumor or denial:
  My child, my child it is you who have forsaken me.
For in that moment our truth had finally been revealed

For we cannot claim a compassionate God 
     if the God we choose is a placeholder
     to uphold unjust views
     or whose ears fall deaf to the cries of the poor
     or who promotes a prosperity
      that benefits a few and no more.

For we cannot claim a compassionate God
    and proclaim the Gospel as the only truth
    when that very same God is rejected by us
    because he or she does not look like us

but rather the image that appears 
reflected in our mirror is
            the immigrant detained by us
            the refugee excluded by us
            the inmate who profits us
            the detainee tortured by us
            the gay man shamed by us
            the child abused by us
            the woman silenced by us
            the poor forgotten by us

And all of it in my name.

So forgive us, we know not what we do.
Forgive us, even though we know 
that it’s not quite true:
        for we know exactly what we do.  

                                  Amen.

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while 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 and is a stay-at-home dad to two creative and adventurous kids, and is an active member of the Catholic Worker community there.

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

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“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

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