We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.
We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.
We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…
What if our nation got as excited about the Gospel as we do sports? Or better yet, what if we got more excited about God than cheering for a team?
How different would this day be? How different would we be?
A wise Sister once pointed out to me that if we celebrated the liturgical seasons with the same fervor as we have for sport teams, then our whole society would be transformed. Maybe, I thought, things would seem more like the Reign of God that Christ proclaimed.
Can you imagine it? Our clothes colors could coordinate with the priest’s vestments. Instead of fancy stadiums, we’d have top-of-the-line community centers in every city so to better shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and heal the sick. All people would have easy access to a vibrant worship community. Upon waking, we’d read our Bibles instead of the sports page.
And, maybe instead of having Super Bowl parties today, we’d have parties to celebrate today’s feast: The Presentation of the Lord in the temple.
Here’s one thing that shouldn’t be hypothetical: We would be more concerned with the social injustices that happen behind the scenes at the Super Bowl. We would be better in touch with the reality of inequality and violence that comes with all our American celebrations. This information would be common knowledge:
Our hearts would be involved with another awful injustice. For, even more alarming than the facts about wealth and poverty is the truth about what happens to many women on this day.
Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.
Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.
My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. The truth is that I really do not approve of any Christmas consumerism or other commotion that distracts from Jesus Christ.
Last week one one of my students innocently asked me a very normal question. He poked his head through my classroom door while he waited for his bus after school. “Sister,” he said “are you going shopping on Black Friday?” He was probably trying to spark a conversation.
I was impolite. “Ha, that might be one of the funniest questions I have been asked all year! Why would you ever think I would do that!?” I honestly thought he was joking.
Of course, it only occurred to me much later that the student was asking a very ordinary, culturally appropriate question. And, I realized, my response may have seemed a bit uncultured, bizarre or down-right rude. (God have mercy!)
I shuddered with shame as I realized my insensitivity. The thing is, the kid pushed my button. I assumed the student knew me and that I am trying to live a counter-cultural life, understood all my values, and in spite of his youth, he was already dissecting the cultural norms that conflict with Christianity. He’s a smart kid— so, fair mistake, right?!
All of the emphasis on materialism this time of year really does make me squirm. I am pretty sure I saw my first Christmas commercial that reminded people about layaway back in September. I probably could have given out Christmas candy for Halloween, if only I had I asked a shopkeeper for some, since candy canes appeared on the shelves right on November 1st. And now, even though we’re still in November, jolly Christmas carols seem to be chiming through speakers all around town trying to get us in the mood to shop, shop, shop. I even heard a radio show host joking about how Christmas already came and went, since it happens around Veteran’s Day now.
If holiday seasons are supposed to stick to a schedule, we have reasons to be disturbed.
Or, more importantly, when we remember what Christmas is really all about, we have reasons to resist.
Christmas everyday, and Christmas in general, is all about celebrating the Incarnation. Love was made manifest in human flesh. Jesus Christ is God and God came to earth in the most humble and simple of ways. There’s generosity, joy, community, peace, trust, lots of love and pure, human fun wrapped up in the real meaning of the ancient story of Christ’s coming:
This is the type of Christmas I am craving and I am committed to carrying out through the end of 2013: a counter-cultural and communal Christ-centered celebration! I hope you would join me, even though I’ll admit it’s much easier to talk about these ideas than to do them, when consumerism’s temptations are around every corner.
Collecting donations for anyone who needs anything: some of my students hosted a food drive last week and will host another one in December.
Spreading the Love: telling teens that they matter and I care about them, writing letters and cards, and being intentional about how I spend time with others.
Hosting some celebrations : a Christmas party in my classroom on behalf of the orphans at Casa Hogar and hopefully hosting a gathering with other friends.
Getting creative about how I give presents: re-gifting, buying things at thrift stores, making DIY crafts out of stuff I have around home, utilizing some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and baking goodies to share.
Resisting Black Friday: I shall instead celebrate Buy Nothing Day and I’m thinking about joining in on a protest, fast, or at least I’ll send a message of support to those who protest for just wages.
What will you do to resist Christmas’ consumerism and focus on the real reasons for the season?
Yesterday I asked a section of my students to raise their hands if they thought power is something God gives us. Only half of the students raised their hands. When I asked the other half what they thought they spoke about how power is something people earn because of their success. “If we are all children of God, aren’t we equal?” I asked. Not really, I was told, status sets us apart.
I believe that the electric energy of equality has the power to unite all.
Within the core Christianity is a belief that all people are children of God. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, we are all people of dignity. Everyone is holy and is worthy of honor. God is alive within all of us. Although our diversity helps us all to be more whole, no one is better than anyone else. God sees as us equals and loves us all equally.
But then there’s the way society sees it. Common culture tells us a totally different story. Before we can read, we learn about winning and losing. Competition is fun. From a very young age we are taught that success and achievement are about accomplishing more, having more and earning more. In the dynamics of capitalism, we base power upon wealth. The rich and powerful seem to perpetually oppress the poor and powerless. Perhaps it is because of this that we blame the poor for their problems and we are convinced that the rich are powerful because they deserve it. Competition and consumerism connect with our experiences of power. The fanfare of the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these attitudes.
The principles of non-violence imply that all people have the same power. No one is actually more powerful than anyone else, just as in the eyes of God no one is better than anyone else. The problem is that power is abused, misused, misunderstood and unknown. Those who are more wealthy begin to believe they have the power to control, lead and guide. Those who are poor haven’t experienced the wealth and goodness of their own power. We don’t really need to empower others, we need to encourage them as they desire to unleash the power they already have.
As we try to be faithful Christians, the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways seems to keep us moving in circles. When we want to experience what power really means we look to Jesus for grounding and growth. The early Christians had some pretty good ideas about all this:
“Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word [that] he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..”-Acts 10: 34-36
We know Jesus loves all. Jesus has been with us through our highs and lows. Jesus’ humility is power’s true way. Into the broken, hurting, bleeding cracks of creation Christ is crying. He’s with us and showing us what is real.
Powerlessness and being powerful blend together in a place of true humility. We know we are nothing without God and this knowledge sets us free. As we bend to God’s power, we are enlivened for God’s good mission. We’ll build unity so that status no longer sets us apart. Energized to be together, we love like Christ loves: with great humility. May it be so, amen, indeed.
I am grateful. It’s thanksgiving weekend, and I am blessed. These days, gratitude and thanksgiving are in season. After a harvest and a celebratory feast it’s easy to cozy up to a sacred sensation of appreciation. It’s good and important, and I could become very long-winded about how grateful I am.
The truth is, though, I am not purely grateful. A few other feelings are mixed into this heart of mine that makes this season a little more complicated.
Yesterday at my family’s Thanksgiving meal there were several conversations about the dangers of consumerism and the goodness of simplicity. My heart was filled with thanks for the fact that these are the values that have been instilled in me. Simplicity and thriftiness shall help us survive, I’ve learned. Consumerism creates more problems than solutions. Happiness has nothing to do with the stuff you have. Instead, joy comes from a relationship grounded in God.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” –Matthew 6:19-21
Jesus seemed to say so himself: It’s not the stuff of shopping that matters, but the stuff of heaven.
The danger and the challenge, however, is that it’s a heaven thing to have a pure heart. Pure hearts are nonjudgmental and free of pride and self-righteousness.
It’s easy to become self-satisfied when I hear murmurings with negative tones about shopping crusades and I agree. The truth is, I know many people whose joy on this day are the deals that they discovered on their shopping frenzies. For many, it seems that the hype, lines, crowds and stampedes of this day are fun and exciting like sports events. It’s hard to appreciate all this, instead I become grateful for Buy Nothing Day campaigns. I can become angry about how people choose insanity. When anger enters in, though, love seems to leave.
In my classroom there is a sign: “If you must have an attitude, have an attitude of gratitude.” In reality, gratitude is tough. The problems of the world glare at me, and it becomes hard to have a grateful heart. When I notice people doing things wrong, I can quickly become judgmental, crabby, and angry. When consumerism and materialism seem to be creating spiritual and social disasters, I have trouble appreciating any type of craze that supports it. When oppression corrodes at the dignity of those whom I love, my heart rarely has room left for gratitude.
A wise sister in my community has told me that when there is a temptation to be judgmental, gratitude is the quickest remedy. Once gratitude enters in, she says, all else has to go out.
Once gratitude enters in, I’ll have no choice but to know love. That love can’t be bought or sold. I’ll have to give it away, and with that it’s the gift that just keeps giving.
You’ve probably heard the saying: “Live simply so others may simply live.” Different sources credit the phrase to different wise people, like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa. Either way, it’s a good mantra and the saying totally carries weight.
Lately a new, yet similar saying has been rattling around in my consciousness: “Live simply so communities can simply survive.” It’s not as poetic but I think it’s just as true and powerful. Plus, I made it up (I think) so that adds to its awesomeness. Just kidding!
Anyway, in my recent summer adventures I have been encountering this simplicity truth in a variety of ways. It’s not new stuff to me; I think about it lot. The circumstances of life, however, just really seem to rub my face in my convictions sometimes.
Last week while I was working with the Peacebuilders Initiative I was blessed to accompany a group of teens on their ministry site visits to the White Rose Catholic Worker here in Chicago. My friends at the White Rose totally seem like ordinary Christians to me. They dumpster dive, grow and preserve their food, give things away freely, advocate for justice, pray a lot, share everything (including their home with strangers) and compost and recycle all their waste. Yet, the teens kept talking about this way of life as foreign to them. It was a reminder to me how my preferred way of life (service combined with sustainability mixed into activism, grounded in good Catholic prayer) is actually quite radical.
Sometimes I forget how my vocation and passions have made me into a counter-cultural creature. The thing is though, my consciousness doesn’t really make it into an option for me, but a necessity. There’s a fire in my belly that burns me right into action. I live the way I do- and am always seeking to increase my sustainability and simplicity- because it seems to me to be the way we need to live.
When the Peacebuilders and I visited my Catholic Worker friends last week, their community did a really terrific job of organizing programming and hands-on actions in order to help the teens gain an foundational understanding about why people choose to live simply as they do.
One day we watched this video together and discussed how environmentalism is intertwined with Gospel living:
The video left me feeling embarrassed for a variety of reasons. It feels overwhelmingly inevitable that I cooperate with the systemic injustices related to consumerism. I don’t mean to, I don’t want to. I just seems to happen, I’m sorry. (I feel like a whiner as I confess this sin, blah!)
But then, I know about alternatives to cooperating with the mainstream. And I try to choose them as much as possible. Some of the most basic ways to live simply have to do with food.
My friends at the Catholic Worker House took our Peacebuilder group to their organic farm for some good-old-fashioned labor last week and I was overjoyed (seriously!) to be placing composted manure around plants and weeding veggies. I was also amazed while I heard the teens say that they had never done anything like it before. Again, I was reminded that it is sort of a radical thing to grow one’s own food now days.
Then, on Tuesday of this week I was was again doing labor and bonding with Earth. I helped my sister box up veggies from her farm for her CSA business. As we weeded, harvested, packaged and delivered foods to people in her community I couldn’t help but think the whole thing felt sort of silly- we were working so hard to feed people who also had good land to grow food. My sister echoed my thoughts as we drove around (and wasted fuel) and made deliveries. She said she’d welcome competition and wishes that CSAs were more ordinary, as it is necessary for us to develop community through local economies. In the same way, I prefer that we’d revert to a culture of neighbors creating hand-made crafts and food for each other. The earth seems to be begging for it.
Let’s do it, Christians. Let’s free ourselves from bills and material abundance, and live simply so that we are closer to the earth and our neighbors. Let’s build community by sharing in the responsibility of sustainability. Let’s live life to the fullest and love one another. The bible tells us to, plus our brothers and sisters far and near need us to help build their communities, not harm them.
As my sister, the farmer, said here, eating food (like all simple actions) is something that connects as a community, no matter where live. So, let’s connect by living simply. God help us, Amen.