Sacrifice, not self-care

Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first. When a plane is experiencing difficulties and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on the masks of others. You need to always make sure to take care of yourself first. — self-help speakers everywhere

I’ve been keeping track, and in roughly the last three years, at conferences, on retreats, and in a homily or two, I have heard the above “oxygen mask” analogy a self-care mantra 13 times. And every time I do, it grates on me.  

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. — Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:34-35)

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Cross in the St Viktor Church, Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2018 (image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

If there is one major thesis about self-care in the Gospel, it is this. No one can do it alone. We believe that Jesus Christ became man and died for us because we could not save ourselves. Before that he walked among the poor, healing the sick and lifting up the lowly because they were too broken to heal themselves and too beaten down to lift themselves up. 

But if you listen to contemporary culture, even among ministers, the message is always this: don’t forget about number one. Don’t get stressed out. Don’t sacrifice your well-being. If someone else is struggling, well, you can try to help to a point but ultimately, they need to make time for themselves.

This message does not work for any of the real problems facing us. That advice does not help the truly oppressed.

How about the women in Vietnam toiling away in sweatshops, literally beaten when they try to organize for better wages and conditions? Do they need to focus on self-care?

What about the elderly gentleman at our parish whose wife now has dementia? He can’t care for her, can’t navigate the medical bureaucracy, and is becoming increasingly enfeebled himself. 

What about the tragic, uncontrollable epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings that are causing our children, as they practice active shooter drills in school, to wonder if today is their last? 

These situations do not call for self-care. They require the help of others, of those outside the situation, to enter into the fray. The women in Vietnam need for us to stop buying products from the companies that enslave them and for us to care more about them and their plight than we do about looking good. The gentleman at our parish needs his friends to bring him meals and take him to doctors’ appointments and to tend to his needs. In the wake of the recent shootings in New Zealand, a young Muslim from the area, Nakita Valerio, posted a quick message that soon went viral: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.” I couldn’t agree with her more. 

We need each other. We cannot solve our biggest problems alone. When we are strong, we need to truly exert ourselves in the causes of justice and wear ourselves out, even hurt ourselves in the struggle. And when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone, we should pray to God that we have communities that will lift us up in turn. 

In the lowest moments of my life,  I did not need a day at the spa I needed my friends to help me, to save me. I was lucky, privileged and blessed that they did. We need to create such communities for all.

This last year in youth ministry was hard. One of our students suddenly passed away from Leukemia. He was a wonderful and charismatic boy, and he left many grieving friends, myself included. Another student tried to kill himself. Between struggles with drugs, sex, parents divorcing, bullying and all sorts of other upheavals, it was an unusually grief-filled year. I was unusually grief-filled as a result. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, entire nights when I prayed for my kids. And God and I talked about a lot of things. But you want to know one thing He never said to me? If I can, for a moment, presume to know the will of the Almighty and hear His voice, I will go out on a limb and say not once did I ever see in scripture or hear from the Lord, “Keep your distance. Don’t love them too much. This is their problem, not yours. Take care of yourself.”

As the year went on, I found my daily prayers changing. On Sundays, the day most filled with youth activities at our parish, I used to pray for strength to make it through unscathed. I soon realized that was not possible; that, actually, being invulnerable requires being very disinterested and ultimately not very Christ-like. 

For to be vulnerable means to be woundable (from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound), and what is the story of the incarnation and passion if not that God himself was willing to be wounded, indeed to die, for the good of those he loved? So now I pray, “God, feel free to allow me to be wounded in your service today. Feel free to wear me out and use me up. Just promise you’ll heal me when it’s over.”

It’s not that I like being hurt. It’s not even that I don’t think self-care is important (even Jesus took his time in solitude to pray and prepare). It’s just that maybe we are focusing on it too much. Maybe we’ve taken it too far, believe in it too much, idolize it.  Believing in the cross means we can’t expect to be well all the time, and believing in the resurrection means we can’t expect to be entirely well at all in this life. We should expect to be wounded, for a while at least, just as much as we should long to be made whole.

So, might I propose a better analogy? Perhaps we should think of these ubiquitous oxygen masks, not like the ones in airplanes but the ones attached to the oxygen tanks that firefighters strap on before they race into a blaze. 

Okay, fair enough; put your oxygen mask on first. 

But the “oxygen” is not your own self-interested little ritual of wellness it’s a real, lived connection to Christ and to a community that has your back. That is what you need to survive. But then, once that mask is on, go into the blaze. Go into the flames and the heat and the danger of the world’s real injustices to bring that connection to others. 

Because your brothers and sisters can’t breathe. They are burning up. They need the help of allies, activists, friends, servants, saints — whole communities of them because if they could have done it on their own they already would have. 

Or, to put it another way take up your cross.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

The joy of being surpassed

Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. – Yoda, to Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi”

It is good to remind myself, every now and then, that in a very real sense I am working to put myself out of a job. In two of the most important roles in my life, that of father and youth minister, I will only have succeeded if and when I am fully and finally replaced.

This has never been more on my mind than it has been this last month. Recently, I became a godfather for the first time, flying out to Chicago to stand beside my best friend and his wife as they baptized their brand new little girl. Not two weeks later, I watched as a good friend of mine was ordained a priest. And in both of these holy moments — both moments in which I stopped and praised God for the people in my life and the grace of the sacraments — my time of prayer was filled with reminders of being replaced.

The first was in the prayer I prayed for my goddaughter. Looking down into her small face and holding her tiny hand, and then later in a stolen moment of prayer after the baptismal ceremony, I found myself praying: “God, let her be the best of us. Let her surpass all of us in holiness. Let her become such a saint that we end up seeking her intercession, and may her prayers for us be even more effective than ours for her because she is that much more in your favor.”

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Steven’s friend and newly-ordained priest, Father Dan Molochko (standing), blesses Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Image courtesy of Steven Cottam.

At the ordination, in a liturgy filled with incredibly meaningful and memorable moments, the most impactful for me was watching my friend and newly-minted priest exchange the sign of peace with my spiritual director — another good friend, an incredibly gentle and holy man, a trusted mentor, and a priest who just weeks ago announced his retirement. I watched these two friends of mine embrace — one just beginning his priestly ministry, the other reaching the tail end of his — and found myself praying that my friend would be an even better priest than my mentor was.

May my goddaughter surpass me in holiness. May our new priests surpass our veteran priests in service.

What am I to make of this longing to be replaced and for those I love to be replaced as well? It is perhaps one of the most common temptations we humans face — the desire to be important. We want to be wanted; we wanted to be needed. We want people to recognize our talents and accomplishments. We love to sit at the head table at banquets and the most important seats in the assembly. Such temptations are always problematic, but in ministry, they can be especially insidious. Perhaps the greatest reason is simply for the fact that the desire to be recognized and applauded — especially for doing the work of the Gospel — is so foreign to the mind of Christ.

The Christian life is a constant call to humility, and that means seeking the lowest place. Christ constantly emptied himself — he took on flesh and claimed his place alongside the lowly and died alongside them. Christ instructed us to wash up and smile when we fast and to not let even our right hand know how much our left hand is giving. As ministers seeking to emulate this way, that means constantly dying to ourselves by always looking for places to step aside and let new ministers take up our tasks. And when they surpass us, when they do what we did even better than we did it, we ought not to sulk or pout or complain about being forgotten. We should rejoice in that God is glorified once again in a new generation.

Yet, so often we do not. As liturgical ministers, we refuse to skip a turn or take a seat and allow someone else to serve at Mass. At soup kitchens, we have to be the one to dish up, and we make the new people wash dishes in the back. We let the new girl talk at the meeting but make sure to cut her off if she starts contributing ideas that outshine our own. We sit in our place, our hard-won place, and we refuse to budge an inch.

How much better would it be if we rejoiced each time we were surpassed, especially if we had the honor of playing some special role in forming the one who replaces us? It would be all the better because being surpassed by our students is also the most natural thing in the world. If we do a good job of teaching — if we are able to pass on all we have learned to the young people we mentor — how could they not surpass us? They would have the knowledge of everything we have learned, including all the mistakes and failures we had to fight through the hard way and of which we tell the tales in the hopes of sparing them that same strife. Yet, they would also have the knowledge of everything they have learned for themselves.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra,” Lewis imagines a foreign world much like our own but unfallen. In it, the main character meets the “Eve” of this world — Tinidrill. Tinidrill is destined to be the mother of all the people who come after her, and she has a conversation in which it is revealed to her that she will not live forever but instead will be replaced and surpassed by her children and her children’s children as the history of her world marches on. The main character, and I think most readers too, expect her to be bothered by this. But she is not. Instead, she rejoices. She praises Maleldil (her name for God), saying:

How beautiful is Maleldil and how wonderful are all His works: perhaps He will bring out of me daughters as much greater than I as I am greater than the beasts. It will be better than I thought. I had thought I was to be always Queen and Lady. But I see now … I may be appointed to cherish when they are small and weak children who will grow up to overtop me and at whose feet I shall fall.

In all our dealings with the young, or with whomever we have the privilege of preaching the Gospel, let us work to make saints far greater than ourselves. Let us work to be surpassed, and let us be filled with joy when we are. Let us decrease so that Christ might increase as these new workers in the vineyard proclaim him. As Litany of Humility (a great prayer for striving against just the sort of temptations we are discussing here) reminds us: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Learning to abide in care

“I have a home here because I know people care for me.” These are the words of my friend and housemate, Tikelah, also known as Miss T. Miss T had a home with her grandma as a young child. Since the age of 10, she has been jumping around from temporary house to life on the streets of Durham to a whole slew of group homes, desperately searching for a place of care to call home.

I have the gift of making a home at the Corner House along with Miss T and six others. We are a strange sort of family, rooted in our belonging in Jesus, committed to learning how to love and care for one another. Our ages range from 2 to 67. Some of us live with developmental disabilities, and some of us do not. All of us are bearers of Christ to one another and gift-givers in our little shared life.

What does it mean to be a community of care? How can we deepen in our care for one another in a world so caught up in efficiency and the self-protection of individualism? These are the current questions of my heart.

It is significant to me that the origin of the word “care” comes from Germanic and Old English words for “grieve” and “lament.” To be in a community of care has something to do with bearing one another’s burdens and crying out alongside one another. A community of care shares a togetherness in suffering. This is the kind of community to which Paul gestures when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).

I used to live in a Catholic Worker hospitality home committed to sharing daily life with some folks living on the streets in Durham. We would often repeat to one another, “abide, don’t fix.” I know well the impulse to see a problem or pain and immediately yearn to fix it, eliminate it or somehow make it better. We live in a world that is quick to celebrate cures and explanations, so often abstracted from the solidarity of relational care. This leads to all sorts of depersonalized policies and “solutions” for injustices that separate us, including such things as race, disability and poverty. A community of care is one in which being together is paramount. Something happens when that commitment to “be together” journeys through pain. The communion is transfigured and a new horizon of love opens up.

In our home, we have three residents who have lost their mothers and other close family members in the last several years. The sadness of these losses remains strong. Almost every single day, the grief bubbles up. We are learning the surprising gift of abiding. Even with the intimacy and intensity of our life together, the lurking traps of trying to avoid the pain or say something to make it all better (which isn’t actually possible) are present. We so badly want to take away the pain of those we love. There is such a temptation in the midst of relational care and responsibility to think we control the quality of life together through doing or saying the right thing. Praise God we aren’t in control. We are learning the beauty of releasement as we sit together and discover our own capacities to listen to one another. We are uncovering the vast depths of love and knowing that emerge from open-handed, steadfast presence with one another. It can actually be quite surprising what we learn of each other and ourselves and God when we stop trying to fix the hurt we see.

I wonder how contemplative practice might orient us to abide, rather than fix, in our care for one another? As we discover our own depths and become more aware of God’s direct, loving, active presence in our lives, we come face to face with our own wounds. In silent practice, in particular, we are confronted with our personal loneliness, fears and anxieties. Through a commitment to showing up to some form of contemplation–resting in the God who is the ground of our being–our relationship with these deep wounds shifts. Perhaps the control they once wielded over our patterns of behavior and thought life softens and we can see them for what they are. We can receive Jesus’ invitation into freedom.

“Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, wounds, failure, disgrace, death itself all have a hidden potential for revealing our deepest ground in God. Our wounds bear the perfumed trace of divine presence.” – Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land”

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Art by Janice Little.

As we come to recognize in our our pain the “perfumed trace” of God’s transformative presence, our relationship with others and their own pains is changed. We begin to see the nonsense in fixing, and the beauty of abiding. And within abiding, there is room for deepening, always closer and closer, drawn into the merciful heart of Jesus. Whatever the journey of becoming more freely and fully who we are created to be entails, we are invited into it together, as a community that enters into pain before trying to do something about it. This is the slow, patient work of care.

The root of our care is God’s care for us. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God reveals the mysterious depths of care. In Jesus, God became a human being and identified with our human woundedness. God cried out with us and entered into our pain and loneliness and fear. God doesn’t know what it is to “fix” from a distance or to be absent from our pains. God is too simple for that. In Christ, we discover care in God’s steadfast, abiding nearness, transforming the blockages of sin into doorways for new life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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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 recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

With apologies to Agathon

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Image courtesy of freeimages.com

“O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”

~ Agathon

Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.

And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.

But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.

When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.

I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.

In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”

~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).

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Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.

The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.

Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.

So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.

In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”

You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.

If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).

Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.

Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Unprofessional

I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.

And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.

I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”

I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.

The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Walking for mercy, walking for justice

This week’s guest blogger, Michael Krueger, first met Sister Julia while working as a dishwasher at St. Rose Convent during his undergraduate years at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Inspired by those sisters and a Franciscan education he is an affiliate with the FSPA and, in La Crosse, was coordinator of Place of Grace Catholic Worker House and The Dwelling Place (a home for adults with developmental disabilities). Michael currently lives off of a rural highway near Madison with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Twice, I have had the opportunity to see singer Glen Hansard in concert: once at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater, and again at the Orpheum Theater in Madison. His singing has always impressed me for its range; the sheer volume and raw emotion he conveys. Often his voice emerges as a faint whisper; slowly increases in dynamic to a startling cry—almost a scream; then fades back just as quickly into the silence from which it came. He carries a powerful voice that speaks to the most intimate moments of life, singing as though he were an old friend. One song in particular, Her Mercy, evokes that intimate desire of relationship and ends with a repetitive invitation:

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

In March of last year Pope Francis made the announcement that 2016 would be known as the Year of Mercy. He did so without precondition, without limitation; not everyone may be ready, but we are all worthy and it will come. The works of mercy, much like the beatitudes, are concrete examples of the Gospel carried out. They can be simple and straightforward: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. But more so than action we are called to partake in the relationship of mercy that isn’t always straightforward—never simple—yet life changing and affirming.

This is the identity of mercy demonstrated by Pope Francis on Holy Thursday as he washed the feet of those incarcerated; visited the Greek Island of Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew to call attention to the plight of refugees; opened a Vatican conference challenging the notion that war can never be considered just. The difficulty of promoting mercy, though, is that we must also be willing to participate in the pursuit of justice for it to come. Sometimes it’s through the smallest of actions—such as a walk—that together we begin down this path of mercy toward justice.

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Stations of the Cross participants walk from Madison’s Cathedral Park (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

On Good Friday I had the opportunity to participate in a Stations of the Cross walk, sponsored by Madison Catholic Worker group, in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. The entire route was roughly a mile long and there were 10 stations, each represented by a building or an organization that sought to convey a specific theme or issue that calls for our attention, invites a response. It was the first time we’d organized this event and had hoped for a small number of participants. Seventy-five people gathered in Cathedral Park near the capital building. At 4:30 p.m. an opening prayer was read and the First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death, came to a close. Stillness pervaded the park.

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Stations of the Cross walkers make their way past the Wisconsin State Capital (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

From that stillness emerged the single beat of a drum followed by footsteps, slow at first, as we all began to walk. Again the beat of a drum. The voices of those walking whispered, hushed, harmonized, hummed: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The drum beat kept pace; participants carried simple wooden crosses painted white. Pause. Stillness. Noises of the surrounding traffic. We slowly stopped in front of the Dane County Courthouse. Amplified over the crowd a reader spoke the Second Station: Jesus is Given His Cross.

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

We prayed for our immigration system: families separated, those locked in detention centers. We stood where contemporary issues in which the reality of Jesus’ ministries—the physicality of the Gospels—are present: a homeless shelter, the police department, the county jail, the veterans museum. We sought to encourage our understanding of mercy and to challenge our association of justice—not a straight and absolute path, but a meandering and often fragmented journey into a greater depth of relationship and a wider sense of community.

Michael-Krueger-Madison-Stations-Cross-March-Veterans-Museum
Walkers prayed where “the physicalities of the Gospels (like the 8th Station/Wisconsin Veterans Museum shown here) are present (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

I have now participated in a walking Stations of the Cross four times in the last five years (with the Franciscan Spirituality Center of La Crosse, Wisconsin) before this year). Prior to that I’d never felt a deep connection to the standard Stations of the Cross observed in any Catholic parish. For some reason this more physical form of reverence reminds me that the Gospel is an active presence in today’s society. The crucifixion made clear the sufferings in the world, but it was the resurrection and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples that would render His presence to the modern world, incarnate in the stations of today. Through Jesus’ resurrection we are able to encounter Christ in this modern narrative of the Way of the Cross. What Easter has brought us is an encounter with mercy.

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

Additional photos, Stations of the Cross materials, and more information about the Madison Catholic Worker can be found at www.madisoncatholicworker.org.

 

80/20: following the rules of the Pareto Principle

If you have ever looked to improve your time management, you’ve most likely come across the 80/20 rule (more officially known as the Pareto Principle). The Pareto Principle states that frequently, the majority of effects (roughly 80 percent) come from a minority of causes (roughly 20 percent). You will most often find this principle applied in business and economics—it’s not uncommon for 80 percent of a business’s revenue to come from 20 percent of its customers, or for 80 percent of a company’s profitable work to be done by 20 percent of its employees, etc.

Pareto Principle (courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)
Pareto Principle (courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)

The application-to-time management is obvious. It would not be strange to find, according to this principle, that 80 percent of the benefits you receive in life come from about 20 percent of your time, or that 80 percent of the meaningful work you do in your job comes from about 20 percent of your tasks. So the way to optimize your time and your life would be to focus on that meaningful 20 percent and expand it, and to find out what is useless in that other 80 percent and reduce or eliminate it.

I will say that I have used the Pareto Principle to some great effect with some of my lesser habits. In terms of browsing the web I have eliminated (well, lessened) time on sites that I find unenjoyable and which add no value to my life, and increased time reading articles that are interesting or useful. On a day off I spend less time puttering around and doing menial, tedious, and frequently unnecessary tasks and more time tackling big projects or doing things I really enjoy. I’m not sure how true the Pareto Principle is in its business applications but I, at least, have found some personal value in it.

pull quoteRecently, I turned the lens of this principle to my youth ministry program. And lo and behold, I was shocked to find out how true it appeared to be! With a bunch of my different programs, I found that 80 percent of my time was spent on about 20 percent of my participants. It was always the same 20 percent who called because they forgot the calendar, lost their book, forgot their permission slip, couldn’t get a ride. It was always the same 20 percent of parents who had a problem or a concern or a question or an angry comment.

It was true on the positive side of things too—it was about 20 percent of the parents who stepped up and took a role in the program, who would help teach and chaperone and lead small groups and bring snacks; and it was about 20 percent of the kids who could be counted on through thick and thin to show up on time, come prepared, and lead their peers.

I was reflecting on all this rather militantly as I walked from my office to daily Mass. I thought, I’m going to hack and slash! If you’re a kid and you can’t figure out how to get your permission slip in on time, then you’re not coming! If you’re a flaky helper, then you’re not going to get to be a part of the program anymore! I’m going to expand the role of my good 20 percent and eliminate my bad 20 percent! Optimization! Efficiency! My program will flourish as I begin to focus on the kids and families that really matter!

I thought about it throughout the opening procession and introductory rites; all through the first and second readings. Right up to the beginning of the Gospel for the day:

“What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

A slap across the face from the Lord. I recovered my senses.

The Church is not the world. And we are called to differ from the world in many ways. This is no more true than the insistence that every life, every person, every kid matters. In fact, the one who is difficult, the one costing all the time and energy, the one you struggle with—that is the one who really matters. In youth ministry and in every ministry, we are here for all. That is the Gospel.

I walked back to my office after Mass very humbled. The Pareto Principle is great for optimizing my Internet browsing and useful when I need to balance my budget … but terrible in deciding which kid needs attention. In that case, I am called to the 99/1 principle. So I sat down, picked up the phone, looked up the first number on my “permission slip missing” list, and dialed. “Hello, this is Steven from Church. How are you? Are you still planning on coming on the retreat? That’s great. Do you have your permission slip? No worries, I can get you another copy. You need a ride? No problem, we can make that happen.

“Whatever you need.”

 

Just sandals and a walking stick

Note from Sister Julia: A version of the following text was written for my coursework in my Introduction to New Testament course at Catholic Theological Union where I am a part-time student. The assignment was to write a Biblical commentary on a particular Gospel passage. The passage I selected was Mark 6: 7-13, which was the Gospel for this past Sunday

imgresJesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two
and gave them authority over unclean spirits. 
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick—
no food, no sack, no money in their belts. 
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic. 
He said to them,
“Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. 
Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet
in testimony against them.” 
So they went off and preached repentance. 
The Twelve drove out many demons,
and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  

– Mark 6: 7-13sandal-1419571

Jesus gave a particular Mission to the Twelve from the Gospel of Mark. And, it is a very interesting story when you are aware of the historical context. In the time of Jesus, there was another group of countercultural preachers who belonged to what was called the Cynic movement. They were founded by Diogenes of Sinope in fourth century Greece and had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, including Palestine. They carried a staff to show that they were homeless and a knapsack to show that they were self-sufficient. They were urban and individual. What Jesus establishes with his sending of the Twelve is a very different movement, as his missionaries were rural and communal and did not carry a knapsack (nor a staff, in Luke and Matthew). This showed their solidarity with and dependence on those to whom they preached. [1]

Like the Twelve, we are called to embrace God’s mission and serve. We must move out and go to be with the other to serve and share the good news. But we don’t arrive as heroes or messiahs, we come to companion and be a guest. We are equal with those who we help, as we unite with their experience of daily life and receive their hospitality. As we give messages of hope and healing, we receive. This is real solidarity and interdependency. It is a radical way of loving ones neighbor, for this “walking with” will not make us into the rich, famous or accomplished.

In order to really live the Gospel in this way of mutuality we may need to change our life around. We may need to change our mind about what it means to help and to serve in the name of God. We may need to make changes in our life in order to be present to others in the ways that God needs us.

In order to do this with integrity and love, it is necessary for us to pause and assess the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I offer a few simple reflection questions to guide us as we seek to implement Jesus’ mission into our modern times.

Question 1.) Who are you with? The Mission of the Twelve begins with Jesus summoning his friends and then sending them out as pairs. Christ summons each of us and wants us to remember that we are not alone. For the disciples of Jesus in the first century, it could have been dangerous to travel alone. Plus, people would have been less likely to take them seriously and welcome them if they were solo travelers. For us who are also called to build the reign of God, it is unnecessary and foolish for us to try to be alone in doing good for God. We are a communal people. We belong to a Trinitarian God of relationship. We need each other. Let us lean on others for support as we do the work of God. Let us support and unite with others while we do that which God calls us.

Question 2.) What does God need us to bring? The instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve is that they are to “take nothing for the journey.” (Although they could have a staff, a second tunic and a walking stick.) I am reminded of the time when I was a Jesuit Volunteer and flew to California to work with homeless youth for an entire year. As I was preparing for my missionary experience, a letter from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program director arrived and challenged me. The letter quoted this passage from Mark and reminded me that I would be arriving to a fully furnished house. I was asked to pack lightly and bring little with me so I could learn to live simply and live in solidarity with the poor. Packing was a real struggle because it helped me to recognize my attachments. Somehow I sensed that the less I went with, the more open I would be to receiving whatever God had in store for me. I knew I could trust the circumstances and I could trust God. We need to bring trust in God.

Question 3.) What does God need us to leave behind? When I was packing for my year of service it felt very freeing to realize that I could leave a lot of my possessions behind and start fresh in a new city. It became clear that I was bringing a lot of excitement and eagerness for my adventure. It also became clear that it would not be helpful for me to be guided by fear, but by love. Just as The Twelve, I needed to leave behind any attachments that could get in the way of serving God, especially any lingering attachments to fear. The Twelve needed to leave behind anything that would prevent them from being open to those who they would meet, anything (such as a purse and money) that would not show them to be an equal. God needs us to leave behind fear and other attachments that prevent us from being open to others.

When Jesus sent the Twelve on a mission, he was establishing a movement to live out his mission. In our day, we are also sent to serve. Like the Twelve, as we go on our journeys and do acts of love, we must bring hearts full of trust in God, leave fear behind and be ready to love all we meet as equals. When we move in this way, we will build relationships in solidarity and interdependency. We will build the Kingdom of God! May God bless us as we go. Amen!

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 148.

 

Australian crime drama removes plank in my eye

By Guest Blogger Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? — Matthew 7:4

I have started watching an Australian cop show, a drama called Rush, in which the main focus is on de-escalation. The officers are gifted at negotiation and always use the least force possible. They use Tasers and beanbag guns instead of real pistols. If the team of officers is chasing a car with teenagers in it, they tell everyone to back off and follow slowly to reduce the potential for an accident. Hands are clasped with simple plastic tags, and tear gas is used to diffuse a violent situation quietly without hurting anyone.

Rush-season-2-ad-rush-australian-tv-series-8722553-500-313I just watched the season finale. Usually, in American crime dramas, the season finale includes a massive explosion or hostage situation with multiple deaths, leaving you and your favorite characters hanging in suspense. On Rush, the big drama was a ballistics report. One of the officers had mistakenly killed a bystander in a dangerous situation, and they didn’t know who had done it. It was only the second time in 35 episodes that anyone had actually been killed. The whole squad was saddened, withdrawn, and visibly shaken by the death. When Dawson finally tells Stella that her gun had fired the shot, she breaks down crying and responds “I killed someone. How do you get over that? Well, you don’t, do you.”

I feel like I have a plank in my own eye. Why are these story lines so surprising to me? They treat officers as human beings, with reasonable reactions and emotions. They portray violence and death as real tragedies to be avoided at all cost; not as fodder for another night’s titillating entertainment. What amazes me most is simply seeing a portrayal of police officers who take every measure to limit the use of force, and are saddened profoundly by any act of violence. This is not what I see in American media or even on the nightly news.  Violence is gory, graphic, and glorified. The body count and the emotional aftermath are passed over quickly in the rush towards a climactic finish of utter destruction. The shows we watch, the games we play, and the streets of our home towns are increasingly violent. Recent events emphasize our militarized police force, the very real threat of terrorists, and armed conflict on a global scale.

This violent reality is what we see every day—our center, the very ground we stand on. The person in Jesus’ parable does not see the plank in her own eye. I wonder if it gets harder to see with a log in your eye, or if you just get so accustomed to the view that the whole world just has a plank-sized hole in it. Watching this Australian show is like seeing the world from a less militarized, more emotional perspective.

eye-series-1159617-s
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

Jesus instructs us, First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye – Matthew 7:5. Does he set before us an impossible task? Can we really remove the plank, or is the whole point of the story just a reminder to be more compassionate and merciful about the speck in our neighbor’s eye? A theology professor pointed out to me that when we are looking at the world we can never clearly see or name the land we are standing on. Is it possible to ever see where we really stand, to recognize how our own personal blindness and cultural biases shape our perspective on everything?