Locked up in different prisons

The heavy metal door bangs behind me, the electric buzz locks the bolt in place. After a pause, another door buzzes and is unlocked, controlled by a police officer sitting near a video monitor in another room. I cross the florescent-lit linoleum and open the next heavy metal door, making my way through this threshold of security.

It’s my first visit inside the county jail. My mind and breath are electric with anticipation. We — the other volunteer I am shadowing and I — arrange the blue plastic chairs in a circle and place copies of Scripture passages, prayers and reflections upon them. Shortly I will encounter my first group of inmates. More than a dozen men will join us for prayer and Bible study.

Driving through brightly colored October woods to the jail, I pondered…

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

Photo credit: (Unsplash/Mitchel Lensink/GlobalSistersReport.org)

Following Jesus outside the box

Since I was a kid, good folks started challenging me to think “outside the box.”

In one case, I remember sitting in the shade on a hot day with a group of girls at Bible camp and our counselor offering a puzzle: I am going on picnic and bringing cookies and my glasses. What are you bringing? Can I bring chips? No, no chips on this picnic … The puzzle would continue all week until all of us in the group figured out that it wasn’t about objects or colors or any other typical category that defined what we could bring: we could only bring words that had double letters.

Now, decades later, I understand that playing such a game at Bible camp was not just a time-filler, not just a way to keep a bunch of girls out trouble. Rather, such puzzles were brilliant opportunities to introduce me and my peers to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship: following Jesus’ demands that we think differently.

“We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to “think outside the box” regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don’t always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it.”  ~ Linda L. Clader, Voicing the Vision.

Here’s a bit about the boxes that get in the way of following Christ.

box-freeimages.com
Image courtesy freeimages.com

In the Kingdom of God there are no enemies because we’ve loved them all into our friends. Death and division don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to pick a political party, wear the latest fashion or obsess over petty things. We don’t have to choose a side or declare right or wrong.

In the Kingdom of God we get to be compassionate, nonjudgmental folks and rebel against the crowds of judgmental people by loving everyone. We get to listen and love and see the good in everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done. We don’t have to fight back or run away when oppression or violence comes toward us; rather, we get to stand up for justice and peace with creativity and compassion.

To be free of these boxes means that we can let go of anything that blocks our imaginations from dreaming up a world where all human dignity is honored and protected, where peace and justice are abundant for every creature, where heaven is known and experienced in this world. To be free of these boxes means that nothing can contain the ways we work for Christ. There are no limits to how we offer mercy, kindness, forgiveness and love. There are no expectations either, for when we allow God’s power to work through us, we can be surprised again and again by what wonders can occur, how goodness can be triumphant.

May the Spirit of God help us escape the box of either/or and give us the grace we need to be active in the energy of both/and—all in the space where we see that every person (Yes, even that person!) is a sinner and a saint, where all of us are works in progress in need of God’s grace.

Then we shall be freed from the limits of our human understanding and imagination. Then we can follow the ways of Christ’s love and can live in joyful awe of God’s work in the world!

 

Easter Sunday: ordinary resurrections and trembling tombs

Alleluia!! Alleluia! He lives, and laughs death right in its face, saying,
Surprise, surprise! Nothing can kill this everlasting love!

Ordinary resurrections are everywhere.

There are glimpses of light where despair was once too intense for hope! The broken bone has healed completely. The child awoke from the terrifying coma. Your neighbor offered you an unexpected invitation to dinner. A relationship has been mended. Ugly habits have decreased; renewal found you in the Lenten desert. The tendency of that cruel colleague to snap at you decreased. The struggling student earned a high grade. New, green life is bursting forth through dismal ground.

Amazingly, the love that has caused this freedom made tombs of all sorts tremble.

The grumpy, over-stressed grandmother lets out a big belly laugh. The violent mind experiences a moment of truth and compassion. The refugee child squeals with joy, seeing the father from which she was separated. Tears fall down cheeks while the family, once divided, laughs over an Easter feast, forgetting what caused the rift between them. Joy beams through border fences, and all are welcomed to the feast.

 

Our awesome God is victorious, and today is a day to celebrate!!!

Happy Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!

"open tomb" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“open tomb” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

lent: divorcing our bad habits

I’m going to flip a song over on its head. I want to offer a spiritualization of something that probably was supposed to be completely secular. Lent, by British indie-pop band Autoheart, is totally onto something.

I got absorbed into the song’s catchiness the other day, and I naturally found myself thinking about the love of my life, Jesus. Then I was thinking about my bad habits–those that I am, in a way, “married” to, and that block me from getting as close as I desire with Love Himself. Noticing my bad habits, after all, is a great reflection for Lent.

Yup–from my point of view the song Lent totally has a great lesson for us. The lesson is not about how and why to divorce, which seems to be the story it tells. No way! Jesus himself tells us that divorce is not OK. The song’s lessons are much deeper than you might think.

You see, Lent is about making changes, all for the sake of true freedom. We fast, we give alms, we pray and engage in all sorts of practices in order to renew our relationship with Jesus. We’re getting ready for Easter but in order to really experience the joyous freedom that the resurrection offers, we really gotta be real with ourselves and acknowledge our sinfulness. If we are real, this part can get ugly.

We are called to take an inventory of what occupies our heart, our time and our thoughts. When we’re real with ourselves, God will highlight what we can let go of.

I desire to return to God with my whole heart but I know that first I must get rid of some things. I must really say I’m sorry. I must repent or I could perish, like last Sunday’s Gospel said. In order to repent, I gotta throw some stuff away. Like the song says: “Give it up, give it up, give it up for Lent. Take a break, pack it in, take it out to the bin.”

Once we really throw those bad habits away–or divorce our marriages to them even more dramatically–we can run to Jesus and ask for grace and forgiveness. We can whole-heartedly sing, like the voices in the song do, “I don’t want to act like this. You know, I want to be free! I want to be free!”

Love is ready and waiting.  Come Easter Sunday, Jesus will joyfully dance with us and together we’ll get to rejoice! We are free!

"What will you see in the shadows?"  Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“What will you see in the shadows?”
Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.

India: The grace of not having a clue

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear.  I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart.  This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.

Yet one never stays long on the mountain top.  The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type.  There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me.   The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.

Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai.  These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism.  Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.

Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response.  Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on.  I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else.  I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues.  Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.

Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart.  Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.”  I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.

It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge.  It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know.  My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights.  Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t.  We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”

This freedom is beyond choice.  Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her.  It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was.  I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages.  I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions.  All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice.   They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”

One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity?   I didn’t know and still don’t know.  I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me.  I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.

This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.  

in God’s time

We can’t really know what God is up to.

But we can wonder, and we do.  Wondering about what God is doing makes me feel like I am the size of an ant in an expansive universe.   Actually, I am, in a way.

Somehow, though, I am part of it all.

Paradigms of planet, church, religion and humanity are shifting all around us.  Sometimes, these shifts are gradual and gentle, like water flowing silently downstream  Other times, though, the societal changes are so bold we almost feel damaged.  We collapse on crosswalks and sprint down the streets of tomorrow while the statues of our ancestors laugh at our blindness.  Can we see the beauty that surrounds us today?

But, it’s hard to know beauty when there is a lot of clutter.  As we listen to the news and hold it up to what we’re working for, we quickly become discouraged.  The mess is confusing and we’re worried. What’s happening to our democracy? What’s going on in Christianity? Passions and power quake the church and government and we wonder what to have faith in.

Could it be ourselves?  Or shall we, can we, have faith in God?

A week ago I was a participant in a wonderfully strange conference.  Giving Voice, a national organization for young women religious, sponsored an inter-generational conference in Chicago to discuss what is happening in this life of ours, religious life.  We came with a sense that God is up to something new and different.  Together we wondered what that was.  The wondering was strange because we were talking about something that we didn’t know.

In Madeleine L’Engle‘s book  A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tries to answer the questions of children.  “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”  I desire to explain what I’ve experienced and sensed, but what is emerging seems to be beyond anything we have ever known.

I know it though, God is up to something. Paradigms are shifting; the world is changing right under our feet.  When the earth moves, it can feel dangerous.  We don’t know what will break around us.  We grip to reactions based in fear and power and doubt survival.  We crash and forget what we most need to move on: eachother.  As tumultuous as all the crashing and changing may feel, we can trust God and have hope.  God is in control and shifts can be good.

At the “young nun” conference we sought to contemplate the goodness that vibrates through the groans.  The process was deep and profound.  We listened, prayed, shared, played, questioned, connected and organized.  We learned too.  We were blessed to be with Sandra Schneiders, who is a great historian and theologian.  She’s pretty much the expert on religious life and what is has been, is, and could be.  In other words, Schneiders is a woman who can speak quite well about how God has worked with people throughout time.

We pondered what it means to be religious women in this time of unknowing.  We leaned in, all 150 women religious seemingly stuck in 2011. We felt connected to the deep roots of our ancient tradition and movements toward the future.  In these moments, I pondered how our human minds limit understanding what time really is.  Science agrees with what my spirit senses, too.  Time, as we know it, is an illusion.

So, we’re a part of this illusive time and God needs us to work.  Schneiders’ analysis of this Kairos was based in her insights that the signs of these times are globalization, secularization, pluralization, and de-traditionalization.  We are called to respond to what’s going on and how it impacts spirituality, politics, service and poverty.  As I listened, I felt relieved, actually.  We can commune in the struggles together.

Through it all I kept wondering.  What are we supposed to do?  If the needs of this time are so great- and they are- then how are we supposed to be present?  What actions do we need to take to birth a new paradigm and way of being?

As we ponder the power of Now, we get to listen to the whispers of the Spirit who always compels us to grow and change.  At the end of the conference, consciousness brought forth the art of poetry.  We peacefully walked through the shift and blessed the words of wonder.  There was silence as we gazed at what the time had emerged.

In art there are answers.  We need not worry about how to bring forth a new paradigm, after all.  We can just focus on living the reign of God.  After we do this for some time, then we’ll be able to look around and be awed that God has used us to help create something new.  Thanks be to God!

some non-patriotic flag day thoughts

"flag over building" By Julia Walsh, FSPA

I am unpatriotic.  I don’t like flag day or other patriotic celebrations.  I feel like I am repeating myself a little, because I have written about this before (see my comments in this post, especially), but I dislike patriotism. I really, really do. I dislike patriotism so much that it sometimes makes me sick to my stomach. Seriously!

I am not unique for my questions about the tension about between the flag and the cross. A Busted Halo blogger wrote about it today too.

What’s with my dislike of the flag?  I think that it was the peace educator Coleman McCarthy who originally woke me up to how the flag doesn’t fit with the Gospel when I heard him speak about peace while I was on a college service trip to Washington DC.

I remember that Coleman McCarthy boldly acknowledged that no young person should have to choose between the flag and the cross, as they are opposites.  In our culture, though, it seems we glorify both, equally.  We even put the flag right next to the cross by the altar in the front of churches!

The flag has become a symbol of freedom caused by violence.  On the other hand, the cross is a symbol of freedom of caused by nonviolence.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I am a woman of the Gospel.  Sure, I am an American, and I appreciate the freedoms of our democracy.  I am grateful that I have the freedom to publicize these non-patriotic views, for example!  The reality, though, is that my freedom comes from God.  Although I may have more courage to be expressive of my views in this nation, I suspect I would still be vocal about God and the Gospel no matter where I am, and no matter what trouble it might get me in.  But, I am much more loyal to my faith than my country.  I believe that God will love me no matter where I am, no matter what.

I have major concerns about how many Americans turn to the flag and nationalism as a source for comfort and strength in times of turmoil.

I would rather everyone would turn exclusively to the cross, the True source of freedom.  Or, even better, Jesus, Love Incarnate.

p.s. I know this is radical and challenging stuff.  I’ve learned that a trouble about having a message is that people may become uncomfortable and offended, because values are tied to emotions.   Know that I still love you, even if we disagree. Peace!!

oh hey, summer! well hello, stranger!

The last day of teaching was well over a week ago and since then I have been on the move.  My itinerant summer has begun.

Many people have asked me what I am up to this summer.  The truth is that my life is just as packed and full as it normally is.  I love it that way.

Here’s the plan:  I am taking a theology class here this week, working as a mentor for this program next week, helping out at my sister’s organic farm the following week, working as a camp counselor here for a couple weeks in July, preparing for the next school year and then going to World Youth Day in Spain right before the school year begins mid-August.   I am really excited about all these great things, I am very grateful to have these blessings.

As my adventures unfold, I quickly become overwhelmed with the privilege, freedom and blessings I live out of.

I am especially conscious right now of how I am afforded the freedom to have these adventures because I am an American citizen with a valid passport and a strong support system.  The circumstances of my life permit me to travel and serve freely without fear of persecution, arrest or deportation.  I am mindful of how many could never freely have the experiences I am allowed because they fear for their safety and freedom in a broken, global immigration system.

My summer kicked off on June 4.  That day, I joined my community in celebrating the first vows of Sister Amy at our Motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  It was a beautiful liturgy and party and Amy was really glowing with the goodness of God.  What impressed most deeply upon my heart, however, was my pondering of one of the readings that Amy selected for her service:

But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the LORD do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!”  –Ruth 1:16-17

What a beautiful devotion to the mystery of Love! Plus, what a commitment to the journey of discipleship!  Highlighted in my prayer in my contemplation of the Ruth story this time was how applicable the wisdom is to our struggle for just, compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform.

We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of history.  Thank God the border between the Moabite Plateau and Bethlehem wasn’t guarded! Praise God that the ancestor of Jesus could cross freely, remain devoted to love and family, and then marry across ethnicity!  Wow, what if our society worked that way!?  If we heeded scripture, I suspect we’d welcome strangers then realize they are saints.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, right now.  My heart aches because of the real injustices related to immigration.  Many days the sorrow meets me in my email inbox and I am compelled to advocate and learn more.

Last week, my community held our Chapter of Chats.  These meetings are rooted in the tradition that St. Francis and his friars had in the 1200’s to come together and hold a Chapter of Mats to discuss the happenings of their lives.  I helped with the sessions led by our Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation Committee, of which I am a member.  Our committee has been focusing our work on immigration reform for a while.  At the chapter, we viewed the powerful film The Visitor and discussed the great complexity of our broken immigration system. At another session, panelists spoke of how they personally have been impacted by the harm caused by the immigration laws.  As we gained awareness, we cried and prayed together that God would give us courage to act for change.

My concern with the topic of immigration extends beyond my work with JPIC.  As I state in this video, I am a daughter of immigrants.  I want all people to have same freedoms I have been blessed with.  Why should we be limited now?  Certainly, it seems necessary to have some order in our legalistic era, but I don’t think there is ever a justification for not treating people with dignity.

Although I have been concerned with immigration issues for a long time, it’s been more intense lately.  Last fall I visited an immigration deportation center in Chicago and it had a major impact on me.  I wrote about it here.  In 2008, the largest immigration raid in US history happened in Postville, Iowa just 10 miles from where I grew up.  Here is the story on NPR from last May, three years afterwards.   In July of that year, I attended a march and rally in Postville. It was amazing.

We were on the move that day.  We were moving with the Holy Spirit, like another Pentecost.  People of all races and tongues came from all over the nation to witness for the type of freedom we long and believe in: Christ’s freedom beyond borders, nations, languages, races, or places of origin.

As I move around this summer, I shall receive hospitality with joy and gratitude.  As we all move around, I pray that we can all welcome strangers and receive one another with the hospitality that Ruth- and Jesus- eventually found in Bethlehem.

Amen, Amen, may it be so!

response

Spring-time tree

the lacy trees
caress the breeze
like solemn faces
staring into eternity
hoping to see, understand
what is happening

across the gray cloud cover
a sudden clear message:
time to, must stop
cheering, chattering, sobbing
over life lost and mission done

stand together
lean into the new
Easter leaves and remember
to be
family listening
loving
through the cracked concrete
made from ancient pillars

look back into
the trees
with ears turned out
to dignity and songs
of freedom
for all, each, no matter

the forest beckons

 

Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/202782