Thanks for giving, not shopping

Happy Thanksgiving!

During this time when we pause to give thanks in the USA, I take this Scripture seriously:

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

But, the truth is, gratitude is only some of what is stirring in my heart.

I am also restless and longing for greater peace and justice for God’s people. Sometimes this causes there to be layers of sorrow, judgement, disturbance, discouragement, disappointment and anger too — layers that I fear might be thicker than the gratitude that I feel.

As many people begin their holiday shopping, it’s especially tough for me to not become angry about the consumerism that our culture force feeds us. People are excited about sales, about shopping and buying more stuff. What is the craze about? Is it about generosity? Or, is it about greed and getting new stuff, just so we can throw out the old?

Whatever the case may be, let’s not throw out our consciousness that Earth is hurting and our consumption is causing serious destruction. Let us heed this warning:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

Christians, we are not here to cause more pain and suffering. We must attempt not to contribute to the systemic problems. Even when it’s easier to avoid the heartache of truth, we must step out of our comfort zones and be converted.

Doing so will help move society toward solutions. It is time for us to work for a more sustainable, equitable and just society, a world that builds up the reign of God. This is how we store up treasures in heaven!

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Matthew 6:19-21

Although this can become a time when a lot of people are crazily shopping and consuming, this is also a wonderful season of generosity, community, sharing and celebrating the goodness of God! This is what builds up God’s reign! This is what we are made to promote!

So, what’s a Christian to do? How can we resist the craze of consumerism and be countercultural peacemakers?

Here are some ideas:

  • Collect donations for your local homeless shelter, transitional living program or food shelf. Want to give things that they really need? Then call them up and ask what that is! Most likely money is one of the greatest needs.
  • Honor children and elders: Mentor young ones and teach them about generosity. Help meet the needs of those who are vulnerable. Visit elders who are homebound and lonely. If anyone asks me what I want for Christmas I’m ready to tell them that I want donations to Tubman House for Christmas.
  • Pray for peace: This includes asking God how you are needed to be peacemaker.
  • Connect to the tough parts in the Christmas story: Advocate for immigration reform and stand up for anyone who is oppressed by violence and injustice.
  • Spread the Love: Tell young people that they matter and you care about them. Write letters and cards. Be intentional about how you spend time with others.
  • Getting creative about how you give presents: Re-gift. Buy things at thrift stores. Making DIY crafts out of stuff you have around home. Utilize some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and bake goodies to share.
photo credit: http://www.accessoriesmagazine.com/

On this day of true thanksgiving, let us give God all that is on our hearts! And, let us make a plan for how we will express our gratitude through our countercultural, generous living. Amen!

This blog post is adapted from the November 25, 2011 blog post entitled “thanks for giving, not buying” and the November 27, 2013 blog post entitled “Craving a countercultural Christmas.”

I’m so glad you called

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began. Luke 15: 21-24

In my work as the RCIA coordinator at my parish, I get to meet a lot of people who are coming back to a practice of faith after a long time away. Many of these people are Catholics who were baptized as children but then, for any number of reasons, never finished their other sacraments of initiation. Some are members of other denominations or even other religious faiths who had a practice of prayer or spirituality that was eventually abandoned. In all cases, whatever the reason for the cessation of practice, the fire in their hearts for a relationship with God was never fully extinguished and they are now actively seeking to kindle that relationship once again.

In all of these people I see a spark of excitement. Something in their life has shifted and now, now is the time when they are taking the step to reach out to a community. When they talk about what brought them to my office, why precisely today is the day they decided to come join the parish or join the Church, there is always a light and heat in their voice that is electrifying.

However, all too often, I will see that light dim as they talk about how ashamed or sad they are for having been away for so long. They’ll share some hurtful or harmful thing that they did or that was done to them; that made them walk away from faith.

We were raised Catholic, but then my parents got divorced and we just never went after that.

My parents were Catholic, but I had an awful relationship with them and didn’t want anything to do with their faith.

I was really involved in a parish, but then I had a big falling out with the pastor and just couldn’t bring myself to be involved any more.

In high school I was deeply involved in the Church, but the life I led in college didn’t really match Catholic teachings. I felt like a hypocrite, and just stopped attending Mass.

My husband died and my church didn’t do anything to support me — I couldn’t really forgive God or them for making me go through that alone.

Image courtesy desiringgod.org

Many are angry — some at others, but just as many at themselves. Some are ashamed. More often than not, there is a real sorrow over the choice to walk away. Even if they were in some way a victim, most of them feel the need to apologize for their absence. This regret often takes the form of a personal apology to me, the representative of the Church with them in that moment.

When people apologize to me for their absence from faith, from prayer, I always feel a bit awkward responding. As a single and very flawed minister I do not speak for the whole Church, not even my whole parish, and much less for God Almighty. But in this moment, to this person, I do represent the Church and what I say next may very well make or break their decision to continue on this path. The good news is that I do think I have an inkling of what God might want to express, and it’s what I always try to share with the individual across my desk.

I am so glad you called.

I am so terribly happy you came in. We have been weaker without you, my brother. We have had a hole in our community waiting for you to fill, my sister. I am overjoyed that you want to build a relationship with God now, and I am giddy that you want to do so with this community of believers. I do not care in the slightest where you have been — all I care about is where you are headed, where we are headed, and that’s toward a deeper friendship with our God. Apologize if you must — I’m happy to listen to what you need to say. But when you’re done, I’m going to take you around the parish and show you off and introduce you to everyone and tell them all ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found our lost friend.’

People who have been actively practicing faith for a while can forget how intimidating returning to the Church can be. Even if someone has already decided that the Church is something they want to be a part of — something of beauty they want to return to — there is often some very real fear and trembling. All too often, Christians are seen as stern moralizers who care more about naming and categorizing sin than caring for the human hearts wounded by it, and too many people come back to the faith expecting a lecture. We need to overturn this image with a better one, the image that the Gospel maps out for us — for we have been given a blueprint of response when one of our brethren makes their way back home; do not fall into the sin of the older brother, clucking your tongue in judgement when you should celebrate at the feast. If you are a Christian, do not forget your duty to hospitality (and perhaps consider sharing this blog with someone who might feel conflicted about returning to the Church).

And so I say to everyone who is thinking of returning to the Church — to those who have been disaffected, betrayed, hypocritical, distracted, skeptical or hedonistic — Come home! Reach out! We miss you! Who you were yesterday is of no concern — today is what matters. Come back; you will not be met with judgement or hostility. And if you are, if you sadly happen to come across a rare minister who does not speak words of welcome to you, then call another parish. I guarantee you will not have to walk far down the road of return before you meet a brother or sister who will respond with the joy and celebration that God surely feels at your return home.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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, adorable daughter and 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.

Following Jesus outside the box

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

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

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

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

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

box-freeimages.com
Image courtesy freeimages.com

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

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

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

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

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

 

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).

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles
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.

Unfriended

“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~ Matthew 9:10-11

This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:

I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”

The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”

I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”

And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.

First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.

Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.

icon-friendship
“Icon of Friendship: Christ and Abbot Mena”

And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.

Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.

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.

This complicated, imperfect world: an essay

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

little-girl-sandals-mud-rain
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.

And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.

Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again.  It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.

At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.

I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”

Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.

Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?

I suspect the answer is almost every time.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:

Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.

Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.

Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.

Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.

Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.

We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).

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.

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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?

People watching and categories

I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed something about myself while I have been bopping around Chicago the past few days.

Here goes: I tend to be really judgmental. There, you have it. What an ugly admission.

Let me explain. As I walk down streets, go through crowds and sit at train stations, I try not to ignore people. Basically, I do a lot of people watching. As I watch people, I try to be open to whatever interaction I may have with them.

"People Watching Zone" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I play a little game as I people watch. That’s where the judgmentalism comes in. I guess what categories people fall into and what their life might be like. I imagine stories about the characters I encounter based on a few clues: what they are wearing, what’s in their hands, and their body shape.

I am totally jumping to conclusions and trying to read a book by its cover! This all happens exclusively in my mind, simply for entertainment or as a distraction from the studying I ought to be focusing on. It’s like I have a habit of playing a little traveling game, meeting people and then making up stories. I am just not sure that it’s a good habit.

I hope it’s not mean or un-loving. But, still, I realize it’s judgmental.

I know I am not unusual for noticing things about the people I meet and making guesses about them. I am pretty sure I am not strange for categorizing people and things.

The thing is, I am learning that it’s not necessarily helpful or holy to categorize people into different types of groups.

For example, this was in my reading for the moral theology class that am taking:

“We can neither divide the morally relevant features, the related moral norms and principles, nor the people involved into neat little compartments labeling the “good” white, the “bad” black, and/or the “ambiguous” grey. Life and therefore morality are not monochromatic, and any moral evaluation that would seem to suggest such a simple dichotomy should be suspect. Our moral analysis has to capture a wide variety of colors, textures, and hue, while trying to weave together from an assortment of loose threads a tapestry that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise.”                                            

 – Bretzke, James T. (2004, p. 145) A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press p. 145 

I’ll admit it. I frequently oversimplify my intake of the world and people around me because of my bad habit of categorizing.

In order to inspire appreciation of how our Christian lives need to “capture a wide variety of colors, textures and hue … that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise” I have created a little photo mediation. Enjoy!

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The conundrum of kids at church

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a rant about mothers who show up late to and leave early from Mass.  He stated that he has more respect for people who don’t bother coming at all: “Either be all in or all out.”  Others chimed in with “Amens” and further complaints about the entertainment and food that parents bring to church for their children nowadays.  Having arrived 10 minutes late to Mass that morning, library tote full of Dora books slung over one shoulder and a diaper bag with emergency snacks hanging on the other, I felt at once embarrassed and defensive.

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http://www.sxc.hu/photo/13064

Part of me wanted to dismiss his vent outright: clearly, this was the naïve and uncompassionate perspective of someone who’s not yet a parent. He just doesn’t understand the monolithic venture that is Getting Out the Door with Little Ones, I thought to myself. After all, I had spent my entire morning trying to get to Mass on time… but two blowout diapers and a child who is absolutely determined to put her shoes on all by herself had conspired to neutralize my good intentions. Let’s see him do it any better, was my rather un-Christian reaction.

Still, his words gnawed at me, probably because I have wrestled with the conundrum of kids at church since my daughter was born two and a half years ago.

The fact is, children at Mass are distracting – to those around them and, most especially, to their parents.  Prayerful reverence is not easily practiced with a fussy baby in your lap and a squirmy preschooler at your side.  There have been multiple occasions in which, nerves frayed and feeling far less peaceful than I did before the start of Mass, I wonder if it was even worth it to attend.

Yet something inside me always answers “Yes!”  I believe there is value in attending Mass with kids… Even when it means enduring the walk of shame up to the only open pew (at the very front of the church, naturally) during the Gospel Alleluia, or spending the entire hour shushing and chasing my two-year-old, or willing myself not to engage in a glaring war with a man who disapproves of nursing in church.

We as a family are rarely (if ever) “all in” when it comes to Mass: we are late or agitated or exhausted or impatient or poopy or hungry or a catastrophic mix of all these – but I have to believe that God appreciates our presence there despite -indeed because of – our very conspicuous deficiencies in piety.  We are the Body of Christ: messy, flawed, unfocused… and beloved.

My daughters may not be able to understand or participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration, and their lack of volume/impulse control may detract from others’ ability to pray as they would prefer.  Still, they are vessels of a special kind of grace, and I believe that the Mass as a whole is better, not worse, because my girls are present.  Their faith cannot be anything but childlike, and so it ministers in a way no polished homily can.  Once, as we shuffled in line to receive Eucharist, my daughter proclaimed loudly “Mama, there’s Jesus on the cross, and Jesus in Comoonin [Communion], and Jesus in my heart!”  I know I’m not the only adult whose mind, in that moment, was called away from wandering thoughts and into reflection upon the sacred Mystery of Christ.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  I’m pretty sure He knew exactly what that implied for parents, and so on Sundays like this last one, I presume an addendum to Christ’s directive:  “. . .even if they are ten minutes late and their shoes don’t match.”

Nicole Steele Wooldridge attends Mass with her daughters in the Seattle, Wash. area; she apologizes if, while doing so, her baby has recently spit up on your rosary or her two-year-old has scribbled in your prayer book.  If it makes you feel any better, she probably hasn’t had a shower in a few days.