“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.

around the world, being different

Several years ago I was very blessed to have the opportunity to do some traveling in South Africa.  I traveled in a way that was probably not atypical for other world travelers in their early 20s.  I met people who were interested in exploring the same places and seeing the same sites and then we would join together and share the expenses.

One day, for example, another American student and I rented a car with two other young women from the UK.  We drove from Cape Town to the Cape Point National Park and encountered some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen in my life.

Cape Point
Cape Point

One of my most vivid memories from the day was a moment I had with one of these strangers from the UK.  We were walking down the path and sharing a bit about who we were.  She told me that she was a Christian, and I surprised myself by saying “I thought so! I could tell!” And she said “I can tell you are one too!” Together we marveled at how we could tell.  We realized we could only guess. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was our attitudes, perhaps we were who we hoped to be and we were greeting others with the warmth and unconditional love of Christ, perhaps we were radically counter-cultural like the Gospel compelled us to be.

What we also realized is that one of the other women who was traveling with us also proclaimed to be a Christian even though she wasn’t really much different from anybody else.  Her obsessions and attitudes didn’t demonstrate that she was in love with the Gospel and Jesus.  She didn’t seem to be living a counter-cultural life in any sort of way; she just seemed like a regular person. And, as far as recognizing another Christian by some sort of feeling, we weren’t really sure if she would get what we were talking about.  Certainly it wasn’t our job to judge her faith, but we were probably making that mistake.

Faith, after all, is a struggle for most people in our incredibly complex and secular world.

Not too long ago, as you probably know, I was blessed to have another international travel experience. At the World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, I was crammed into crowds of literally a million young Christians from around the world.  These youth were much more attached to the specific Christian classification of Catholicism.  No matter the flavor of faith, though, for Christians we’re all rooted in the Love of Jesus and good news of the Gospel.  And, what happens in our hearts and prayer should compel us to act, look and live differently from what is common.

At the end of the World Youth Day experience, two million people gathered in a old airfield for an evening of prayer.  We hiked there in the boiling heat on Saturday, set up our camps, and tried to stay hydrated and cool (which seemed practically impossible, considering how hot it was).

When I went in search of water that afternoon, I had an interesting observation.  A million teens and young adults, no matter how they kneel in prayer or study the Catechism, are still a million teens and young adults.  The same temptations hover over good intentions as they would in any other huge crowd of young people.  Then, when people are thirsty and there are language barriers and other frustrations, a spirit of compassion, kindness and helpfulness may not be natural.  In fact, when things are really tough, people naturally look out for themselves, it seems.  In one situation, for example, I had to remind some teenagers to allow an elderly man to get a drink of water.

I realized I had to set aside my idealism for a bit and just pray that everyone would fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel and be the people God made them to be.  Is that what it takes for Christians to really be different?  Is that what it takes for kindness and concern for others to be our directive?

Despite heat-induced mistakes, the young people still blew me away.  Upon my return to the  United States I’ve been asked what my favorite part of the trip was.  After we survived heat, crushing crowds, and a fierce storm together we shared a moment of extreme reverence.  Imagine two-million people kneeling on the ground in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and the power, energy, and awe vibrating into the earth. Imagine the peace that moved around the world because of that prayer.  Imagine the blessing! That was my favorite moment of the trip.

During that profound moment I learned a great lesson.  In addition to kindness and our counter-culturally living, praying makes us different, too.

loving Jesus, not the nation

It’s Memorial Day in the USA.  Many people have hung flags with pride and celebrated soldiers like saints.

I’m different. I’ve been humming a non-patriotic song..   Every day I remember the sin and horror of war and cry out to God for forgiveness and conversion.  Today is no different. I pray in thanksgiving for the non-violence of the cross and remember the many non-violent, civil-disobedient martyrs who have helped me know the real peace of Christ.  Like the non-patriotic song says, Jesus Christ is the only thing that freedom means to me!

“Anthem” by Five Iron Frenzy

A nation stands with heart in hand

To sing their anthem proudly

Voices raised to sing their praise

Of their hollow country

All this talk of freedom

And some talk of liberty

From your plastic podium

You try and convince me

I can’t fall anymore

For some silver-tongued song

Your freedom isn’t free

So let me say what freedom means to

I can’t see red, white, and blue waving in the air

I don’t hear the bombs bursting and I don’t even care

I’m sorry for my lack of faith I’m not the greatest patriot

If this is all there is to freedom I don’t want it

I can’t fall anymore

For some silver-tongued song

Your freedom isn’t free

So let me say what freedom means to

Pushing us a drug that you call freedom and democracy

Promise us that selfishness is the means for happiness

I burned that bridge so long ago that I can hardly see

Anything but solace in what freedom means to me

I can’t fall anymore

For some silver-tongued song

Freedom isn’t free

So let me say what freedom means to

It cannot mean to serve ourselves

That doesn’t mean a thing

It doesn’t mean to give the license

To seek ourselves in anything

That would be slavery to ourselves it isn’t free

Jesus Christ, the only thing that freedom means to me.