Death in Spring: two Holy Week meditations

Death encounters

On the first day of Spring, I awoke to a voicemail from a friend, her voice cracking with emotion as she said that her mother had unexpectedly died. Please pray for us, Sister.

The rest of that day, I attended a funeral for someone else, for the husband of a friend of my living community. The sons of our friend stood near the altar and wept as they remembered their father. Their father’s body lie silently in a casket in the middle of the Church, while a new Spring light streamed in.

On the second day of Spring, I stood in front of a group of 8th graders at a local parish and discussed the events of Holy Week. How did Jesus die? I asked the youth, pointing to a clue: the crucifix.

On the third day of Spring, I took a walk during sunset and tried not to slip on the ice so I wouldn’t be alone in the woods and injured. Or worse.

On the fourth day of Spring, I drove down a highway, snowbanks slowly melting in the ditches. At 65 miles an hour, I caught sight of a horrid image: a ragged deer carcass, frozen stiff, twisted and statued upright by a chunk of ice. Parts of its flesh and bone were exposed, likely picked at by hungry animals.

Later that day, I learned that two of my sisters had died.

On the fifth day of Spring, I bemoaned the fact that I live in a nation where death by gun violence is common. I carried a sign and marched among hundreds, demanding change so that no pupil in any classroom would ever die.

On the sixth day of Spring, Palm Sunday, I meditated and reflected on the Gospel story of the passion, the story of Jesus accepting his gruesome death on a cross.

On the seventh day of Spring, I attended a wake for Sister Bernyne. I touched her cold corpse inside the casket and prayed, asking her to help me, to keep helping our community. Before going to sleep that night, I watched a documentary about death and mortality. I was riveted by the beauty and vulnerability of the art and truth; I was in awe of the mystery and wisdom.

On the eighth day of Spring, I heard “the end is coming soon … any day now,” about another friend who is in hospice care, who is keeping vigil next to the door of death.

Spring has started, but death is staring me down, it’s around every corner. There’s no denying that death and dying are part of life.

Credit: FreeImages.com

In the Garden  

After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.  —  Luke 22:41-42, 44

He’s agonizing, face pressed close to the earth as he prays, I imagine. Knees crusted with gravel and dust.

He knows he must die and it will be brutal. He knows that new life can only emerge for him, for his followers, if he accepts suffering — if he accepts the true cost of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

As he goes through his head and heart and tries to find another way, trees and shrubs shelter him. But he knows he’s always known — there is no other way. He must die for there to be new life, for the fullness of life to be.

The moonlight illumines the garden. He stares at the exposed roots of a nearby tree, he studies ants crawling on the bark. He examines seeds cracked and littering the ground surrounding him, mixed in with dust and gravel. He remembers what he said, what he told his friends about the kernel of wheat.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” —  (John 12:24)

He understands he must be like the wheat. Or nothing he has told them will bear any fruit. He must be like the snow that elsewhere melts away, to expose new life. Dying and self-sacrifice for the sake of the community. That’s the paradox of life. That’s the paradox of every Spring.

He doesn’t want to accept the truth, but he knows me must. He doesn’t want to cause any hurt or pain. He knows his friends, his followers will be heartbroken, disturbed, confused — that things must become worse before they become better. As he talks to his father about all this, he is praying so intensely he becomes soaked with sweat.

He loves — the deepest affection ever felt by any human. And this love is for every human soul who has ever existed, including those who will live in two millennia. For you.

He sobs, his shoulders and chest shaking for the depth of it, for the love and sorrow and truth and pain. Now his cloak is soaked with both sweat and tears. He sees that blood is dripping from his face — his eyes? — and coloring his garment as well. He sobs and sobs and prays and prays all through the night, disappointed with his friends sleeping nearby.

At dawn, the sunlight cracks through the darkness, colors paint the horizon. He gains courage to embrace the cross, to show us all how to embrace the mystery and promise of death.

He goes through the political and religious trial. He is tortured, he his whipped, and nailed to two cross beams. He cries out from the cross before he breathes his last breath.

And through it all, deep underneath, behind all the torment, a slight smirk colors his thoughts. A small laugh. Death won’t win. It won’t have the last word. In three-days time he will arise. He’ll show them how death leads to new life!

That which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

— 1 Corinthians 15:53-55

Credit: FreeImages.com

Have a holy and happy Triduum and Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!  

May the beautiful mysteries of death and life be close,

and fill you with faith and hope. 

Credit: FreeImages.com

Fear, faith and the flu

I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.

Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.

As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.

Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.

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Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.

But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.

We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.

In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.

As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.

Easier said than done (at least for me).

Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.

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Image courtesy freeimages.com

This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.

Especially as a mother.

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.

Merry Christmas: the story in the world’s heart

Re-blogged from December 24, 2015.
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The Holy Family in a creche scene in Greccio, Italy, 2014. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.

We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…

[This is the beginning of a column I wrote for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Love, Sister Julia

The greatest news of Advent … and all time!

What if things really are better than they seem?

Often, people talk like we are living in the darkest period of history yet. There seems to be the assumption that if you look around, it’s obvious that things couldn’t get much worse. Actually, the statistics tell a different story. Oliver Burkeman cites a statement released by the New Optimists movement:

People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher.

We are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds — from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying — in steep decline.

Things are getting better!

As Burkeman also suggests, just because total violence in the world is down does not make each gun death a total tragedy. Positive global trends do not mean that we should not keep working for systematic change and improving the world with all our hearts. But, if anything is true about our current age, it’s that while we tend to emphasize the negative, lifting up the good news of all the advancements in our world can be a helpful antidote.

The good news of Advent is similar. Things are getting better for one great reason! The incarnation. God became human and this is the good news of all time.

Image courtesy smallpax.blogspot.com

In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi experienced the love of God in a fresh radical way and his life became a living sign of God’s outpouring goodness. At Greccio, Francis created the first living crèche. He brought together the local townspeople and animals in a cave to remember and celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby. For Francis, the good news of Jesus was central to his life.

Later, Franciscan theologians such as Bonaventure reflected on Francis’ life and his deep love for the incarnation and began to articulate a great Franciscan insight that can profoundly change how we act. For Franciscans, God is not just some abstract being, but God is good, and specifically God is love. From this insight flows the true heart of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. God became human out of love not to fix sin, but to draw closer to humanity and to incarnate the true nature of God which is love. If God had become human just to fix our mistake of original sin, God would be reactive instead of initiator and creator. Instead, God is love. God wants to draw closer to us in love — the true meaning of Advent.

Why does this matter? Our concept of God can affect what we believe and, in turn, how we act. When God is love it’s easier for us to have a vision inspired by hope and joy. The world is a good place and that means we see things differently. For one thing, our task as Christians is not primarily to save others from sin but to spread God’s love, to reach out with our whole being and make the goodness of God more visible.

It’s a subtle shift — God is firstly goodness, not abstract being. God became human to more fully express love, not to save us from sin. But the implications of this shift are far-reaching into every aspect of what we believe and how we act. When God is good we find also that humanity and creation are good. We are the Beloved.

The challenge, then, is to truly believe how precious we are and to see the beloved in our friends and enemies. The challenge is to act: not only as individuals but as communities and institutions as if the good is real, primary, and move always toward building more space for the good to flourish. I look for the good even in my own struggles and find strength in my Franciscan tradition as I discuss in this “AdorationTalk.”

May goodness surprise you this Advent season, even when you least expect it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

Confession: I like Tim Tebow

I have a confession to make: I kind of like Tim Tebow, the professional football player turned professional baseball player. I respect him. In fact, I admire him.

Since he played for football teams other than my favorite, the Green Bay Packers, I’m a little shy to admit this. Also, he has lots of critics. For some, the criticism is strictly about his football skills or lack thereof. Others don’t like the way he speaks freely, openly and consistently about his relationship with Jesus. He is often dismissed as a Jesus freak, a religious radical.

But when I look at his witness with some openness and empathy, I find it admirable. Win or lose, he kneels in prayer. Win or lose, he praises and gives thanks to God. Most importantly, he lives his faith off the field; extraordinarily generous with his resources. He knows these resources are not his alone but gifts of God to be shared. He is not perfect, but he keeps Christ at the center of his life.

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Image courtesy Wikimedia

When I heard Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome of the challenge to keep Christ at the center of our lives, I thought of Tim Tebow. Paul writes that we are baptized into Christ, so we must live “for God in Christ Jesus” (6:3-4, 8-11). Do we live for God, above all else? Do we keep Christ at the center of our lives? Do we love anything more than we love Christ: family members, friends, career, work, status, reputation, money, iPhones or our favorite sports team?

In Matthew 10:37-42, Jesus speaks to the twelve about this demand of discipleship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me …” Jesus is not telling us to not love our fathers or mothers, sons or daughters. In fact, he is blessing and reinforcing the special bond of love that exists between parent and child, brother and sister. He invites us to embrace this love. But then he challenges us to extend it and expand it, and to keep him at the center of it.

The challenge in the Second Book of Kings (4:8-11, 14-16) is to keep Christ at the center by showing hospitality as does the influential woman who shows kindness and hospitality to the prophet Elisha, taking initiative by arranging a room and meals for him.

And in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says that this hospitality should also be extended to “strangers,” to immigrants. Jesus says that when we welcome strangers we welcome him, and it is the basis of the final judgment.

Does our church practice the hospitality that each of us has received from God? Is the church “a living witness” – as we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer – to this hospitality? What are the boundaries of welcome, and who defines these boundaries?

Have you ever felt unwelcome in the church, or that your gifts were unwelcome because of your gender, race, class, legal status, marital status, unique family, sexual orientation or the language you speak? If so, I apologize. This lack of welcome is wrong. It is a sin. It is a failure in our call to show God’s hospitality.

In order to more fully witness to God’s love and hospitality, it is important that we listen to anyone who has not felt welcome, to listen with openness and compassion, without judgment, and to commit ourselves to a different way of relating, loving – following the prophetic example of Jesus.

And we must be critical in our hospitality. Even in offering hospitality and welcome, we can remain in a position of domination and privilege over another. We can be condescending or paternalistic. Can we be totally open to the other and willing to learn from them too, recognizing that they have something important to contribute?

Jesus embodied this hospitality. And he continues to welcome us and embrace us by feeding us, nourishing us with his Word and Sacrament. Let us always keep him at the center of our lives and share his hospitality with others.

Note from the editor: This blog post is a version of a homily that Fr. Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on July 2, 2017 (Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

Jesus is way cooler than Spider-Man!

“Why is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man?” asked a seventh grader.

His question wasn’t completely out of the blue. He, along with dozens of us spending the week at  Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in northern Montana, had recently learned a new way to proclaim God’s glory: “Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man!”  *Denotes both the sound and pose of web-slinging.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

The question about Spider-Man came up while I was sitting on a panel for a “Pastors Pondering” session — a small-group gathering in which youth can confidentially write their most burning queries about faith and (hopefully) receive an answer from a pastor. (Though I am neither Lutheran nor a pastor, the camp had graciously invited me to participate anyway.)

Much to my surprise and delight, the seventh grader’s rather cheeky query inspired one of the most profound conversations about Christian theology that I’ve ever been a part of.

So why, exactly, is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man? Here’s what we came up with:

Jesus is there for us all the time, not just during an emergency

Spider-Man swoops into people’s lives to stop the villains when a situation reaches a crisis point; then he swoops right back out again, leaving those he rescued staring off into the distance where he disappeared. But Jesus never leaves us. Our lives don’t have to be threatened for him to care about us, and — though we may experience moments of awe and marvel at his greatness — we never have to stare off into the distance wondering when or if we’ll ever see him again.

Jesus lives in community, while Spider-Man is a loner

Peter Parker must lead a dual-life, hiding his most authentic identity from those to whom he is closest. But the Jesus of the Gospels is surrounded by people who know who he is and what he does … and who truly love him. Jesus does not build credible alibis; he builds deep and mutually-loving relationships. He inspires his community, teaches them, and empowers them to continue his work. I’d much rather be friends with that guy.

Jesus doesn’t need to use violence to defeat the bad guys

The death and destruction Spider-Man leaves in his wake sometimes cause people to wonder if having a neighborhood superhero is even worth it. But Jesus doesn’t have to maim, kill, or destroy to win. Whether he is confounding the Pharisees to rescue a woman about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11) or mysteriously passing through an angry crowd intent on killing him (Luke 4:28-30), Jesus manages to undermine the evil intentions of villains without ever physically hurting them. And although Jesus’ famous instruction to “turn the other cheek” is sometimes mistaken for passive surrender, it is actually one of many acutely subversive acts of resistance to injustice that he demonstrates in his life. (For more about Jesus’ nonviolent subversion, I highly recommend “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” by Walter Wink.)

But the point is: unlike Spider-Man, Jesus fights — and wins! — the good fight without ever harming his enemies or creating collateral damage. To a peace studies major like me, there’s just nothing cooler than that.

Jesus is a savior, not a superhero

Spider-Man always wins the day. He uses his super-human abilities to vanquish villains and receives public adulation in return. He defeats the bad guys and re-establishes proper order. Jesus, on the other hand, loses … badly. He ends up disdained and condemned by his own people, abandoned and betrayed by his best friends. He begs God to spare him, but still succumbs to an agonizing, unglamorous death. Yet somehow, in doing so, he defeats death itself and upends the proper order of things forever. Jesus’ story is not heroic … but it is salvific.

Jesus loves the bad guys just as much as the good guys

I don’t know about you, but I often wonder whether I would be the hero or the villain in many scenes in my life story. My autobiography is tainted by moments of cowardice, hubris, and even outright maliciousness. In short, I’m a sinner. Given the right circumstances, I have no doubt that I would find myself on the wrong side of Spider-Man’s relentless quest for justice. But Jesus’ quest for justice is rooted in radical grace, so that even the rich man who cannot part with his possessions is loved (Mark 10:17-22); and even the fraudulent tax-collector is invited to dinner (Luke 19:1-10); and even the soldiers who nail Jesus to the cross are forgiven (Luke 23:33-34). It may not be a Hollywood ending, but it’s beyond Good News for me.

Basically, it boils down to this: Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man because Jesus is God, and he chose to die for us — all of us — anyway. Spider-Man just can’t come close to that.

. . . Nonetheless, at the end of our Pastors Pondering, we did have to admit one thing: Spider-Man has much cooler clothes than Jesus.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her Lutheran pastor husband and their two daughters. She is grateful to Pastor Dan, Pastor Tanner, and her husband for being part of the amazing Pastors Pondering that inspired this post. She also apologizes to any die-hard Spider-Man fans for any character errors; she admits that she actually knows very little about Spider-Man.

 

Peace beyond corners

My most vivid memories of elementary school are from second grade. I had spiked hair (I’m not sure if it was cool back then or not), lost many of my baby teeth (earning a special certificate with each one) and played lots of playground football games. However, these were not my most important or formative experiences.

I attended Saint Mary’s Grade School in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Sister Leonette was my principal, and Sister Maureen was my second grade teacher. Since Sister Maureen had taught young black students on the south side of Chicago, she placed a special emphasis on Black History Month.

During all of February, we learned about the great African-American women and men who struggled to end slavery and segregation and who led the civil rights movement like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. We learned and sang black spirituals. Sister Maureen showed us photos of her former school, and I felt connected to those students. My family visited that school and parish in Chicago several times over the years, and we formed relationships that continue today.

Sister Maureen’s classroom also had a Peace Corner. If two students were fighting they had to go to the Peace Corner, talk through it, apologize and shake hands before they could leave. I had a few trips to the Peace Corner — mostly related to arguments arising from playground football games. Making peace like this was not easy, but it was so important. Knowing that I still experience my faults and weaknesses and broken relationships, I think about that Peace Corner often and try to practice it in my life today.

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Left to right: Leonetta Kochan, OSF, Luke and Maureen Bomaster, OSF (photo courtesy Luke Hansen)

That spring I made my First Communion. In accordance with the Gospel, the Peace Corner was actually an important and necessary preparation for receiving the Eucharist.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples:

“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your sister or brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your sister or brother,
and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)

Black History Month and the Peace Corner both instilled something deep within me about what it means to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers. The annual observance of African American history taught us about the need for social reconciliation. We learned about social sins like slavery, racism, segregation and discrimination, and the need for justice and reconciliation in society. In the Peace Corner, I learned about the importance of reconciliation with friends — and those I found it difficult to get along with. I learned the need for dialogue and forgiveness.

Sister Maureen was a great teacher — a wonderful teacher of peace, just like Saint Clare and Saint Francis. She created structured opportunities to form our young consciences and commitment to peace.

So I ask you: Who has helped form your conscience and shown you how to forgive and make peace? When was the last time you needed to say “I’m sorry” for hurting someone you love? When have you been able to extend forgiveness to someone who hurt you?

In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5: 1-12),  Jesus invites us, his disciples, to live in a new way: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be peacemakers.

In the Gospel,  Jesus challenges us to go deeper than simply following good rules (Mt 5: 21-22). To renew ourselves in holiness. It is not enough to simply not kill people. Jesus invites us to examine what is underneath a desire to kill: anger, slurs, grudges and judgments. In what small ways do we kill each other? Is it through gossip? The Arabic word raqá today could mean calling someone stupid, crazy, fake, a flirt or ugly.

If we find ourselves talking about others like this (and I know I do, at times) or even looking around and thinking about others in these terms, it is necessary for us to go first and be reconciled with our sister or brother.

The sign of peace at each Mass provides this opportunity. It is a sign of our desire to make peace before we go to the altar. Whenever you give the sign of peace, remember the Gospel. In the sign of peace, we are preparing ourselves to receive the gift of Jesus and his peace.

And, if there is someone you need to reconcile with in your life but they are not with you at Mass, take a moment to pray for them before receiving Communion.

May every chapel, and every sacred liturgy, be a Peace Corner where we are formed into persons of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Note from the editorThis blog post is a version of a homily that Fr. Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the closing Mass for Camp Franciscan on June 15, 2017 (Thursday of the 10th Week of Ordinary Time) at Holy Family Convent in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Photo credit: http://www.Jesuits.org

Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He presently assists with sacramental ministry at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

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.

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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!

 

On practicing Christian hospitality

My husband and I recently made the difficult decision to open our guestroom to a family experiencing homelessness in our community.

bedroom-by-Nicole-Steele-Wooldridge
Guests are welcome to Nicole’s “Jesus Room” (Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

We heard about a mother, father and their infant who were living on the streets and in dire need of help. A member of my husband’s congregation posted on Facebook that the family, whom she had known for quite a while, were looking for a place to stay. Though she herself would have loved to take them in, she had family visiting and no extra space in her house, so could someone please help?

I couldn’t ignore her desperate plea for somebody with a spare room to step up and get the family off the streets.

You see, we have a wonderful guestroom in our house and it just so happened to be unoccupied at the moment. Our guestroom is the “master bedroom” of the home, a converted garage with plenty of space and an en suite bathroom.

When we bought our house nearly five years ago, my husband and I envisioned this space to be our “Jesus Room.” In the spirit of one of our heroes, Dorothy Day, we wanted a dedicated hospitality room into which we could welcome Jesus in the form of “the least of these.” But the refugee resettlement organization I contacted regarding transitional shelter needs never followed through on their home inspection process … and our family and friends kept visiting … and our lives were busy.

Dorothy-Day
Dorothy Day

Eventually, the sense of urgency we’d felt to utilize the space for God’s poor subsided.

When I heard about the family living on the street, I knew this was our chance to finally make our guestroom a true Jesus Room. Here was an opportunity to practice the radical hospitality that we believe is fundamental to Christianity.

But, here’s the thing: I really didn’t want to.

As I scrolled through the Facebook post, hoping to no avail that somebody else would volunteer, I became increasingly apprehensive. I came up with an unholy litany of reasons to say no: Our house isn’t big enough for seven people; our schedule isn’t very flexible so we won’t be able to help them get to their appointments; I don’t want strangers sleeping in the same house as my two young daughters.

It’s reasonable, I think, to be hesitant to bring strangers into a home with young children. But, as I previously reflected, I don’t want to use my daughters as an excuse to abide complacently in my comfort zone. In my heart, I did not believe that allowing this family to stay in our guestroom would put my daughters in danger.

What, then, was my excuse? That it made me uncomfortable? Unfortunately, I concluded long ago that following Jesus is supposed to be uncomfortable.

So, my husband and I put the word out that this family could move into our guestroom. Since they did not have a working cell phone, we had to trust that their network of friends in the community would get the message to them.

Meanwhile, we frantically cleaned the house; we bought baby food, diapers and extra sandwich fixings; we came up with a plan for establishing appropriate boundaries with the family. On an impulse, I hid our iPad, and hated myself a little bit for doing so.

And then we waited.

For most of a week we wondered when and, eventually, if the family would arrive. Finally, they showed up at a community supper and we learned they’d found some other friends to stay with.

They would not be needing our Jesus Room after all.

I was both immensely relieved and acutely disappointed. On the one hand, our daily routine would not be disrupted. On the other, we hadn’t gotten to practice the Christian hospitality we so revere (at least in theory).

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what it truly means to “practice hospitality.”

It’s not something I’m naturally good at (as demonstrated by my knee-jerk reaction of finding reasons to say no), but this experience has helped me to practice hospitality—to practice preparing my home for a stranger, to practice making the decision to step out of my comfort zone, to practice being welcoming in a Christ-like way.

And, as with anything, the more we practice the better we become.

Not only do I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make a Jesus Room out of our guestroom, I feel confident that when I’m faced with another opportunity to “welcome the stranger,” I will be less hesitant to say yes. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even be able to say yes with a fully cheerful heart as Paul instructs us, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, to do.

Until then, I take comfort in the knowledge that—while I am a far cry from a perfect Christian—I am at least a practicing one.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her Jesus Room is still just a guestroom … for now.

With apologies to Agathon

Easter-cross-freeimages.com
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.