Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

franciscan-sistesrs-house-fire

Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

franciscan-sisters-flames

Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

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 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 language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.

You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.

This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.

This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.

And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.

The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.

But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.

I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.

And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.

The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.

Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.

Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.

Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.

If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

Listening to and praying with the cries of the children at the border

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
-Proverbs 31:8-9

Like everyone else who understands that the Bible is a book that calls us to love without limit, I am heartbroken by the splitting of families happening at the U.S./Mexico border.

You probably heard that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused the Bible to justify the sin of separating families. I am grateful that Stephen Colbert stood up for the Truth of love and justice in response, as you can see in this video.

God’s law is love. The Bible is all about love; love is the entire New Testament covenant. Christians must be more concerned with love than borders, security or any human-made law.

Love can be painful and demanding. When we really love, we often feel heartbroken. Because my heart has been so heavy about the ways that children in poverty are suffering, I wasn’t sure how to write about it. I doubted I could say anything that wasn’t already being said. I felt helpless.

But then, once the audio of children crying inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility was leaked by Propublica, I knew I didn’t need to say anything new or different. I could share this video with any of you who may not have yet had a chance to listen, and by doing so I could help give voice to the voiceless–the children trapped at the border. I could let the children speak for themselves.

Here is the video. Please listen. As you do, love the children. Imagine their faces. Please pray for them, for their parents, for those who must work in the facilities, for the people in power who can end all this horror.

When I first listened to the voices (and cried and prayed) I was reminded of Archbishop Jeckle’s words at The Summons event in Postville, Iowa on May 11, 2018:

“I would like to cry, to weep. And I would like to say we should weep as a form of prayer, as a way to wash our hearts—to soften our hearts.”

We must weep, we must soften our hearts; we must offer our broken hearts to God for mending. Crying is an appropriate way to pray in this situation.

Then, with God’s grace helping us gain some strength, we can get to work. Let’s learn the facts about what’s happening at the border by reading this article. Informing our minds is another way to pray.

Then, let’s donate our dollars and energy to organizations offering aid to families separated at the border. Or, let’s plan to participate in an upcoming protest of the separation of families, such as this one in Chicago or Families Belong Together events near you, as listed here. Protest and charity can also be ways to pray.

However we cry, pray and act on behalf of the children and their parents, let us remember that God hears our cries; God is with us and empowering us to remain courageous for justice and peace. Thanks be to God!

The righteous cry out, the LORD hears

and he rescues them from all their afflictions.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,

saves those whose spirit is crushed.

Many are the troubles of the righteous,

but the LORD delivers him from them all.

He watches over all his bones;

not one of them shall be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked;

those who hate the righteous are condemned.

The LORD is the redeemer of the souls of his servants;

and none are condemned who take refuge in him.

Psalm 34:18-23

We’re standing on holy ground

We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.

We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.

We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…

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

(Photo Credit: GlobalSistersReport.org / CNS / Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

Black cloth

Red broth, steaming soup, vegetables

just picked, now my lunch; I slurp life in.

Phone rings

Sister Laura on the line, “Sister Rita is dying.

I’ll put the phone to her ear. Say what you’d

like. She

can’t talk, won’t respond. Say your good-bye.”

A pause. My lungs expand, mind races, I search

my heart

for words just-right. I mutter, “Thank you,”

“I love you,” “Pray for me,” “Enjoy freedom,”

“Good bye.”

She moans acceptance. The words echo—

feel blank, all seems hollow—

sacred.

Red broth, steaming soup, life once fresh

now my lunch; hot liquid tasted,

consumed.

Minutes later I hem black cloth for prayer,

black cloth for teens needing gifts from God—

life long.

Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/379193198
Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/379193198

Dedicated to Sister Rita Rathburn, FSPA, who was a sister, friend, and coach for me in the craft of writing. She died on Monday. May she rest in peace. 

Orlando faces in the sanctuary: Sacred wounds and the communal body

This week at Sunday Mass I had a full-body prayer experience that transcended the ordinary.

I am Catholic. Full-body prayer is nothing unusual; it’s basic Catholic functioning. Stand, sing, sit, listen, sing, listen, speak, kneel, stand, shake hands, sing, walk, eat, drink, kneel, sit and stand. Through the rhythm of movements, our hands, feet, mouths and throats embody the mysteries of our Incarnational faith. Even as we sing, speak and breathe, the core of our bodies vibrate with words of love and hope.

This past Sunday, though, my body tuned into a communal woundedness. It was as if, in a way, I could feel in my bones an echo of the laceration that had been inflicted upon my brothers and sisters during the massacre in Orlando a week prior.

Certainly the mass shooting that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 was a complex atrocity. The narratives of our nation’s political battles are…

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

June 19 2016. Poster at Old St Pats Chicago.jpg

Ashy Remembering

Black falls off my fingers.

A dark coat of Truth covers

me, my hands, all dirty. I am

Too messy for this: the sacred

Marking of penitents processing.

Skin rubs skin, black in between

Ash smeared upon holy, oily faces.

The stream keeps moving. I am

like a rock slowing the flow with

redirecting, grounding. I proclaim:

          “Remember

           you are dust and to dust

           you shall return.”

The steady flow of faces, the wisdom of the mantra

moves my solid heart.  I remember.

          I remember the softball coach

          and his sudden death last Spring-

          he is now nearly dust in his grave.

          I remember my former student killed

          on the street and the beauty of his grin.

          I remember my grandmother, and an

          absence, an aching for sixteen years.

          I remember the martyrs of this bold faith.

          I remember those marked by blood in death

          in Syria, the C.A.R., Ukraine, Venezuela, Iraq,

          Afghanistan. I remember that they’re me.

The stream keeps moving. I am

like a rock slowing the flow with

redirecting, grounding. I proclaim:

          “Remember

           you are dust and to dust

           you shall return.”

Black falls off my fingers.

A dark coat of Truth covers

me, my hands, all dirty. I am

Too messy for this.

          Repent.

“Remember You are Dust” by John Pobojewski From: http://pastorblog.cumcdebary.org/?p=3585

a life to the fullest type of December

“I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  – John 10:10b

Merry Christmas! God is with us!  And, this God who is with us- Baby Jesus- has given us the greatest gift of all: life! I believe that life abundant means that life is packed full with all bliss and burdens being human offers.

This December, my Advent and now-Christmas spirit kept switching channels.   Due to the circumstances of my life and the events of our world, my inner-spaces and accompanying emotions flitted around like a spinning top.  Really, I was on a journey through the valleys and peaks of life; there truly was a lot of the Jesus-named “life to the fullest” stuff.

December began with a week long awaiting for the birth of my new nephew.  The first major life peak I dealt with was nervous anticipation unlike any I had ever felt before.  The beautiful baby boy arrived on the 7th.  Ecstatic joy, gratitude and awe came right with him.  Plus, that same day, I also learned that a darling little girl who I love has leukemia. My heart broke with sadness.

More life: my work load snowballed, it was mid-quarter at the school where I work.  Grades were due again.  Enter heightened stress and exhaustion.  After my grades were submitted and I sighed with relief, the layers of life became more meshed. The fun of Christmas was nearing but the harsh reality of suffering and tragedy still hung heavy.

Mid-month, I was like most humans: horrified and depressed about the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to scream and compel everyone to throw guns away and pour their money and energy toward compassion and mental health.  I wanted to wrap my new nephew in my imagined fairytale safety cloak so that no gun could ever come within a mile of him.  Never before had a felt so protective yet full of grief.

Instead, I had to do what many of us did: pray a lot, cry a little, and then push my fire-y feelings into my daily grind; the regular hard labor for Gospel peace and justice.  Meanwhile, in my classroom and around the high school, everyone seemed to be getting antsy because Christmas was getting closer.  I wondered if we were numb or ignoring suffering, or just eager to be joyful and celebrate the Nativity.  Around the school we ate too much sugar, started singing carols and decorated as if our lives depended on it.

Where I live, the sisters and I sang and danced to carols on the radio, laughed and played games, baked cookies, made homemade candies, whipped up a feast, and exchanged gifts with much joy.   The jolliness of the Christmas spirit had somehow had found its way into our hearts despite our consciousness of the expanse of human suffering.

I was merry too, as I drove off to be with my family for my new nephew’s baptism and Christmas celebrations. Fa-la-la-la-la-ling I went into Midwestern snows with a trunk packed with gifts and freshly made Christmas goodies.   The radio didn’t stay stuck on the cheery Christmas carols, however.

With horror, I listened to how the national debate on gun violence had evolved one week from the Sandy Hook massacre. No longer were we talking about mental health, our violent culture and the need to change our gun laws.  No instead, to my disgust, I was hearing the proposal for more guns, security and a suggestion that teachers should be armed.  I was so angry I thought I would be sick.  So then, onward to Christmas and baptismal feasts and joy did I go, slightly stained with the awfulness of cynicism and sarcasm because of the direction that the national gun debate turned.

The baptism and Christmas celebrations were beautiful and blessed, of course.  I was honored to become a godmother again. I sang Christmas hymns to the new baby.  I cherished every second I had with the living masterpiece that somehow, miraculously was made up many of the same genes that I am.  My family stuffed our bodies with wonderful farm food and then burned off the calories by laughing so hard our sides hurt. And, of course, the prayerful liturgy was deep and peaceful.  As we meditated on Christ’s coming to change and empower us, I felt God embrace the wideness of the fullness life.  The Christmas happenings and the Holy Spirit provided a deep consolation.

So, now I am back to La Crosse with my community, still feasting in the calm and beauty of Christmas. And, this Christmas is going to last a while.  You see, this year I am going to engage in a Christmas Every Day experiment.  This was announced in the La Crosse paper yesterday.

Yesterday was also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The fun and excitement of my Christmas Every Day experiment announcement, was squished between my prayer for all the thousands of children who die everyday from unjust causes throughout the world.  I started to understand what I was getting myself into.

Living Christmas Every Day will mean that I will awkwardly flop around as I try to do what all of us are called to do.  I shall celebrate that our God is with us through all things, especially in the suffering and pain.

Christmas Every Day means that as I will be more intentional about living the Christmas spirit than I am normally.  And, that Christmas spirit that I’ll be living with isn’t all sweet and good.  In fact, the story of Christ’s coming itself includes great violence and horror.

Christmas Every Day means that I shall carry all of what is true, good and hard about being human.  My constant fun celebrating shall be colored with the wholeness of what life is and how God is with us, especially in the raw hurt.

Yes, Merry Christmas, may it be a real Christmas too, a celebration conscious that life to the fullest is packed with joy and pain together.

"holy infant" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“holy infant” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

trusting fire’s power

The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice.  No barriers divide us, no division separates us.  God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.

Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong.  We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits.  With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred.  If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.

In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature.  Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive.  Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests.  Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.

We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding.  It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore?  How can we believe and trust?  How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?

Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through.  In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.

I try to trust, despite the struggle.  I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed.  A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice.  He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered.  “No, it’s not!” I said.

Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain.  Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK.  I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.

Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends.  The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.

The Golden Sequence

Come, Holy Spirit,

send forth the heavenly

radiance of your light.

Come, father of the poor,

come, giver of gifts,

come, light of the heart.

Greatest comforter,

sweet guest of the soul,

sweet consolation.

In labor, rest,

in heat, temperance,

in tears, solace.

O most blessed light,

fill the inmost heart

of your faithful.

Without your grace,

there is nothing in us,

nothing that is not harmful.

Cleanse that which is unclean,

water that which is dry,

heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,

fire that which is chilled,

correct what goes astray.

Give to your faithful,

those who trust in you,

the sevenfold gifts.

Grant the reward of virtue,

grant the deliverance of salvation,

grant eternal joy.

Amen, Alleluia!

bonds that build and never break

I am not afraid of death.  I do not fear death because somehow I am confident that I’ll get to know Jesus better at that point and I really look forward to that. But, I don’t want to die.

I am afraid of grief.  Grief can damage faith.  It can destroy joy and break people down.  The fear I do have about my own death is what it might do to the people who love me.  I’m afraid of people I love dying because I don’t know how I would live with the awful taste of grief in my own body, soul and mind.  And, I doubt I can live without them.

Plus, tragedy and suffering can be so life changing that the identity of a person can be transformed.  Even person-hood and dignity itself can be questioned.  When Desmond Tutu was asked what the worst thing about South African Apartheid was he said that the greatest tragedy was how the injustice caused people to doubt that they were children of God.

In addition, when confusion is really thick, doubt can cloud out joy, hope and a sense of purpose.  Questions can collide with trust.  Why would God let this happen? How could a good God let us suffer?  How is a Christian to respond?  What are we supposed to say? How are we supposed to be?

I’m learning some answers because I keep living.

I have heard some of my students say that death is their greatest fear.  Nearly every day I hear them pray for a safe return home from school and a safe return back tomorrow.  I haven’t prodded to find out exactly what they fear about death- whether it’s what it would do to others (like me) or how it would cut their lives short, or something else completely.  No matter the reason, their fears are well founded.  Violence hurts and kills people in neighborhoods all over Chicago nearly every day.

This weekend our country is commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Certainly, the nation can do well from pausing to remember how suffering has changed us.  It’s valuable to tell our stories and to hear the memories of others.  While we listen, let’s build community and bless each other through loving presence.

Here’s the “How To” that I have learned:  No matter the cause of death and tragedy, we must respond with love.

Lately, I’ve learned about love in a whole new sort of way.  My own experience has convinced me and I’m learning it from how my students are.  When tragedy, such as death, breaks us down and contaminates us with pain, the most healing thing that a person can offer is loving presence.

The walls of death can’t clog the power of a loving presence.  Through grief, love beyond the material world is real to us.  Even beyond death, those whom we love are with us.  When we stay awake and listen deeply this Truth gazes back at us through the suffering.

This love bonds and blesses. It’s beautiful how it can’t really break.  Thanks be to God for the mystery and wonder. Thanks be to God that love keeps building.  Thanks be to God that we’re children of love and at death we don’t really part.

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.  -Romans 14:7-9