What is it about the nature of human gratitude that propels us to make offerings and manifest our feeling in the material world? Why do we tend to create and extend more goodness to others as a way to express our appreciation?
Lately, I am marveling in the mystery of human goodness and how it connects to gratitude. When we we say thank you, we share goodness and the goodness expands. Every gesture and offer of appreciation seems to ripple outward, increasing gladness and gratitude. And, part of what’s great is that no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing “Thank you!” There are no limits to sharing the goodness.
It’s an an ancient human phenomenon, this tendency of ours to give back and share once we’ve known a blessing. We find evidence of it in Psalm 116 as the psalmist expresses a longing to “repay” God for the goodness they have known:
Here, in our Franciscan household, we’re doing food prep and working out our menu for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving celebration. Just like many people in the United States, we’re going to create and offer more goodness to others in order to express our gratitude for the goodness we’ve experienced. We’ll savor what’s delicious and fill our bellies. And in the midst of it all, we’ll somehow increase the gratitude that warms our happy hearts.
For many, the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas combined) is all about goodness and gratitude. In the coming weeks, many of us will bake sweets for neighbors and colleagues. We’ll offer gifts to loved ones and host celebrations for our family and friends. We’ll send out thank you cards and gratitude letters. Again and again, we’ll create more things, and as we do we’ll share the goodness we’ve experienced.
This time of year, many people are also increasing their acts of service and charitable giving, and each time they do they are sharing from their abundance — often out of appreciation.
Here’s a few ways you could give your gratitude: GivingTuesday is next Tuesday, and it’s a great time to share your wealth and love. My community is raising money for our ministry fund. A nonprofit that I’ve been involved with since 2004, Waking the Village in Sacramento, California, is opening a new Tubman House site in January. It will serve 16 children and youth leaving homelessness behind, putting their strengths to work in pursuing education, career, and wellness. They are in need of donations to outfit bedrooms, kitchens, classrooms, and family rooms and have created an Amazon Wishlist. (One warning about charitable giving and service this time of year: please avoid making the struggles of others into your special holiday entertainment.)
For all the goodness you’re offering to others, for the ways you’re sharing your abundance and expressing your gratitude, I say, thank you! Thank you, good people, for extending the goodness that you have known to others and for warming others with gladness and appreciation!
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.]
Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.
Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.
I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).
At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.
I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.
What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.
And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.
The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.
Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.
It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.
The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.
For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.
There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.
The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.
For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.
The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ.
Jesus invites us into ongoing repentance that involves receiving a new vision of belonging. In the life of discipleship, we are constantly receiving new eyes to see the world around our neighbors and ourselves in deeper reality and truth.
The book “A Riff of Love” activates imagination for creative discipleship that gives witness to this perpetual conversion and participates in this deeper reality. Author Greg Jarrell invites readers into his neighborhood to explore the depths of what it means to be truly human and what it means to be in communion with God and other persons. Through its very form, this book invites the reader on an integrative journey. Jarrell constructs each chapter as a tapestry of interwoven threads of personal stories from his neighborhood, historical narratives of place and racial relationships, theological reflections, musical connections, and self-reflective insights.
These threads come together as one encounter for the reader — an encounter beckoning transformation. And this is the thrust of the book that comes through over and over: Jarrell has been changed and is being changed through the friendships and experiences of his life, and he is eager to invite others into that journey of transformation.
As I read this book, I listened to the music of the musicians mentioned in each chapter: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. These artists and the poignancy of their music have offered me new ways of seeing and have unearthed in me a connection with stories and people that otherwise felt more distant. As a saxophonist, Jarrell’s musical mind provides the reader with touchpoints for exploring new landscapes of truth.
The integration of music throughout “A Riff of Love” resonates with me as the husband of a gifted artist who is constantly ushering our community into new depths of worship through paintings, sketches, and prints. It is not as if the musical connections in this book are meant to be representations of an already-known, static truth. Rather, new dimensions of truth, lament, and beauty emerge through the encounter with art and melody.
I often wonder what faithful political engagement looks like for Christians in America today. Politics at their core, after all, are about cultivating a common life in such ways that make room for the flourishing of all. The side of political engagement that seems to make the most headlines involves the fight for policies and systems and elections that fashion a more just set of societal structures — one in which it is harder for systems of oppression to continue, where it is easier for those who are poor and on the margins to integrate into a common life marked by freedom and equity. Another vital side of political engagement (and one that I think is too often ignored, mislabeled, or even feared) involves our daily lives and habits of relationship, consumption, and neighborliness. The tiny, mundane aspects of our ordinary day-to-day life have implications for the common good.
God’s invitation to me and to my family includes imaginative discipleship of littleness, prayer, mutual care, and welcome through an intimate and intense shared life amongst persons living with and without disabilities. As this second form of political engagement, our little way is interconnected with the first (a politics towards establishing a more peaceable scaffolding of policies and laws that treat persons living with disabilities more justly and with humanity), and each is made more full in companionship with the other. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day preached about this connection and the Catholic Worker Movement is a witness to the beauty of refusing to separate personalism from the fight against what Dorothy calls “the filthy, rotten system.”
In this book, Jarrell demonstrates an understanding of politics that refuses to separate the justice of a way of life oriented around peculiar and personal friendships from the battle for new laws and policies that better reflect the reality of each person’s belonging in our common life.
None of the larger, systemic, historical issues that Jarrell explores throughout the book remain in an abstract or distant space. Rather, through pressing into the relationships in his own neighborhood and deep, attentive listening, he sees each in its proper context; sees a bit more clearly what’s going on both interpersonally and structurally.
This robust view of politics even includes attention to the interior life. I am compelled to believe that a life of justice and neighborly love offers vitality for the inner life and that deepening discoveries of one’s inward journey are connected with a life of mercy and justice. Jarrell understands this and is constantly welcoming the reader into his journey of self-reflection and attention to the movements of his own soul.
I appreciate the space to clarify some of these thoughts on Christian life and the common good through Jarrell’s writing and find myself wondering how he might engage some of the relevant variety of voices in Christian tradition: Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld.
As another white male called to an intentional way of conversion, care and friendship in a North Carolina neighborhood fraught with complexities related to a history of racism and displacement, much of “A Riff of Love” resonates with me. While Enderly Park in Charlotte has significant distinctions with our North Street Neighborhood in Durham, there is much overlap and many insights to glean from Jarrell’s discoveries. Mostly, this book challenged me to learn and to unlearn.
Through Jarrell’s witness, God is inviting me to learn more about the history of our place, the connection of this land on which I write with human movement, lending practices, segregation, urban planning, and displacement. I am also receiving an invitation to deepen the process of unlearning habits in my own life that mask or even prop up, the illusory stories that distort reality. I am reminded of the vital significance of historical remembrance and truth-telling.
I encourage everyone to read this book. Please. Read it with an openness to repent. Read it docile to the Spirit’s movement, perhaps shifting the ordering of your daily life in ways that more clearly reflect the good news of the Gospel for all creation.
May God give us the grace to slow down enough to heed Jarrell’s introductory exhortation: “… excavate your place and your soul.” Let it be, Lord.
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 my new home in Chicago, I can visit the shore of Lake Michigan, and I like to go there to pray. From my spot on a concrete slab, all that is visible to me that is “natural” is water and sky. Everything else — the concrete, the fence, the shoreline — has been constructed by humans, not God. Humans inflict change on everything they encounter. Watching the water roll around the boulders at my feet, I realize my creaturedom carries a contradiction: No matter my will, my body is always impactful; with my smallness comes a might. I have effects on landscapes and other creatures just through my being and my breath.
Later, I go to Mass, tucked into a chapel around a table I equate with love, mercy and transformation. It’s a truly Catholic community. We’re sisters, priests, and married and single people with many shades of skin. Some are from nations I’ll never really know (South Korea, Ireland, Zambia). A woman’s voice proclaims the Psalm:
Let this be written for the generation to come, and let his future creatures praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his holy height, from heaven he beheld the earth, To hear the groaning of the prisoners, to release those doomed to die.”
Centuries ago, before my religion found form, ancient words acknowledged us. The future creatures were… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.
In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.
My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.
I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of, Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)
The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.
Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.
Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.
Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.
It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christand then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.
I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?
This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.
Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?
I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.
Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.
In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.
The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.
With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.
Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)
When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?
In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.
There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.
Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)
I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”
A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.
Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.
It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.
I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.
I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
For our failure to protect life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to elect leaders who protect all life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to accept hate, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to avoid confrontation, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to allow white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to shrug our shoulders in the face of evil, God, have mercy.
For our greed, God, have mercy.
For our pride, God, have mercy.
For our violence, God, have mercy.
For our excuses, God, have mercy.
For our selfishness, God, have mercy.
For our stubbornness, God, have mercy.
For our love of guns, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of public places, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of celebration, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of diversity, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of the joy of being young, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of ordinary days, God, have mercy.
For permitting a society full of inequality, God, have mercy.
For allowing money to have more power than people, God, have mercy.
For putting any life above another life, God, have mercy.
For calling people monsters, God, have mercy.
For being numb to bad news, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the loss of life, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the evil of violence, God, have mercy.
For our failure to build a compassionate society, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love our enemies, God, have mercy.
For our failure to believe in you, God, have mercy.
For our failure to destroy our idols, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end hate, God, have mercy.
For our failure to stop racism, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our failure to follow your nonviolent way, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust You, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust each other, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love one another, God, have mercy.
Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.
For the faithful who honor all life, We thank you God.
For the speakers who challenge the status quo, We thank you God.
For the powerful who build unity and peace, We thank you God.
For parents who shield their children from bullets, We thank you God.
For strangers who sacrifice their lives for others, We thank you God.
For leaders who turn anger into hope, We thank you God.
For teachers who help us think carefully, We thank you God.
For prophets who speak Truth to power, We thank you God.
For policy makers who lead us on the path of peace, We thank you God.
For gun owners who beat their weapons into tools for life, We thank you God.
For peace activists who offer us an alternative vision, We thank you God.
For organizers who offer vigils and places of sanctuary, We thank you God.
For clergy who keep us focused on the Prince of Peace, We thank you God.
For ordinary citizens who offer their gifts to the greater good, We thank you God.
Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.