Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

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Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

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An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:

Advent after Sandy

by guest blogger Jayne Pickett

Last night my sisters and I were sitting around the kitchen table sharing a celebratory dinner and conversation. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the effects of hurricane Sandy.

On the edges of our daily living there is a communal sadness as we hold deep in our hearts those whose lives after the storm will never be the same: the mother whose two small children were swept out of her arms, to their deaths, by the storm surge; a teacher who fights for life in the ICU, unaware that her husband and child drowned and were found dead on the lawn in their community.

These conversations are our way of grieving with those we know who have lost so much. They’ve lost memories, communities and loved ones to hurricane Sandy. While New Yorkers are resilient and determined, in our hearts, we cannot escape the effects of tragedy and devastation.

Nor do we want to.

While the news has moved on to other stories, Sandy’s story continues through the compassion of those near and far who continue to support and help the victims of the hurricane. At the high school where I teach (which was spared any damage), students decided to forego a planned celebration and instead send the money to a sister school in Staten Island that was devastated in the storm.

Other schools and universities in the area are pitching in through similar efforts or with labor for rebuilding. One of my own sisters ministers in a local hospital as a physician assistant and worked countless hours through the storm and continues to do so for misplaced and evacuated victims and patients of the city. Her story and our story are one of many efforts of generosity, caring, and concern for neighbors, friends and strangers which reveal a loving and active God mending brokenness and offering hope amidst tragedy.

In this Advent season we continue to grieve and search out ways to be hope for one another, to give to others so they can begin rebuilding, and to be thankful that we have each other and our God to see us through.

This week’s guest blogger, Jayne Pickett, is originally from Wisconsin, but has spent several years teaching high school in New York City. She is currently teaching in White Plains, N.Y., and is a candidate with the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

love in the dark

The actions of Lent lead me through valleys of reflection.  As I serve and share I keep thinking and praying.

I’ve been wondering: What does love look like in the dark? What is it really like to trust God when things are hard? Why must we go through uncomfortable repentance and detachment to really be ready to know free Easter joy?

God’s ways are so good. I shall keep choosing them even though I don’t understand.

freely united lenten grumbling

In those days, in their thirst for water,
the people grumbled against Moses,
saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?
Was it just to have us die here of thirst
with our children and our livestock?”
So Moses cried out to the LORD,
“What shall I do with this people?
a little more and they will stone me!”
The LORD answered Moses,
“Go over there in front of the people,
along with some of the elders of Israel,
holding in your hand, as you go,
the staff with which you struck the river.
I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb.
Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it
for the people to drink.”
This Moses did, in the presence of the elders of Israel.
The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
“Is the LORD in our midst or not?”    –Ex 17:3-7

They’re full of doubt, confusion and despair.  Many are thirsty for the meeting of basic needs and justice: the Israelites in the desert, Christians in our modern world, and all of humanity who has been impacted by oppression, natural disasters, war, violence, greed and all sin.

I wonder who is thirsty today?  Who may feel abandoned and doubt if God is in their midst?   I remember the union workers in Wisconsin.  Their story and struggle has been swept behind Japan and Libya in the news headlines, but still has great meaning.  If you haven’t heard, the law that prevents the Wisconsin civil workers from maintaining their bargaining rights was due to go into effect last weekend.  Instead, the law is stalled in the courts, creating confusion about whether it has been enacted or not.

Madison Wisconsin Protest
Scene from Wisconsin's Capitol

Like the Israelites, the unions of history were able to escape from slavery.  We’ve all been liberated by God and unions for fair pay and hours, safe working conditions and proper benefits.  I am so thankful for the justice that we have inherited from our union grandparents. The heroes and saints who freed us are not individuals, but entire communities.

Now our generation is wandering in the desert, not really sure what God is up to. The union story is not unlike our faith story.  Although it sometimes takes a long time for things to be as they should, it doesn’t take long for us to take things for granted.  It doesn’t take long for us to grumble against our leaders.

It’s easy to do this in political life and it’s very tempting to do this in faith life.  When we’re faithful citizens, the messes mix together.  The history of the union struggle reminds me I am proud to be Christian, specifically a Catholic.  Sure our Church is a community diseased by our human sinfulness. But we are also a community of saints.  I feel very grateful for the service and leadership of our bishops, especially in the labor struggle.  I am delighted by the statements that have been made against oppression.  And, in regard to the ongoing struggle in Wisconsin, my favorite part of the story is that the Catholic bishops made a public statement in support of the unions.

Madison Protest
Inside Wisconsin's Capitol

The Lenten season challenges us all. We realize our need for redemption, for Jesus and justice. We look in the mirror and read the news and then thirst for clarity, strong faith and strength.  Our social sins are just as ugly as our personal ones.

In community we approach our dark struggles with actions of prayer, fasting and alms-giving.  In our politics and faith, we wake up and notice that we have much to be grateful for, and this feeds us with hope.  We thirst for justice and then we remember we’ve been redeemed before, so we trust.  The ugly shall turn into Alleluias, and we’ll have joy all around.

A version of this post was previously published on the Young Adult Catholics blog.

Photo credit: Inside Wisconsin’s Capitol http://www.flickr.com/photos/52421717@N00/5454861442/