About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…
The Rebel Alliance’s dramatic assault against the Death Star, the X-Men’s desperate struggle against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles squaring off against The Shredder: these characters compose the narrative of my childhood. I have been utterly shaped by this litany of beloved good guys and their unending fight against their villains. Every Saturday morning and weekday afternoon it was the Power Rangers/Planeteers/Ghostbusters vs. the forces of darkness, myself firmly entrenched in the fight, shoulder to shoulder with the heroes.
And, in addition to these fictional narratives, the real young me learned that often a fight is just what it takes to make the world a more just place. On more than one occasion when I was bullied (and parents and teachers couldn’t be bothered to notice or care) I found that a bop on the nose worked well to end my oppression. My 10-year-old self knew that the primary means of changing the world for the better came at the end of a hero’s fist.
As I have aged, I’ve certainly introduced nuance and complexity into my inner world. I know the fault lines of good and evil are rarely so obvious as they were for the Turtles; that they run straight through the center of every human heart instead. And yet, the frequency of which I think of myself as a fighter hasn’t changed at all. I might not have bopped anyone on the nose recently but in my mind’s eye, I still fight a lot. A lot. I fight things big and small. I fight against hunger and I fight for social justice. I fight against procrastination, temptation, and my lower self. I fight incivility and extremism. I fight off drowsiness and boredom. I fight countless seen and unseen enemies all day long.
And I have become convinced of the recklessness of this rhetoric.
In a fight, there is always a loser. There’s not always a winner but there is always a loser. And though I have learned very little in my short life on this earth I have realized this: people hate to lose. If someone loses a fight, rarely do they limp off and self-reflect and convert their heart. More frequently they lick their wounds, bide their time and come back swinging to even the score. Then the victor becomes the vanquished, and vice versa, and the cycle begins anew. We get stuck in it; become addicted to it.
Conceiving everything as a fight sets you up for failure. In my fight for social justice, who am I trying to beat? No one. In my fight against my bad habits, who am I trying to defeat? Myself? An idea? It’s nonsensical and it’s rarely helpful. I’d much rather win people over to a better way of being, myself included, than beat them into it.
And I’m not saying we should never fight; never perceive of our struggles as a fight. Such language has its place. St. Michael the Archangel is a warrior, and St. Paul tells us we have an obligation to fight real evil (Ephesians 6:12). The Lord goes before and fights on behalf of his people (Deuteronomy 20:4). But turning everything into a fight deprives real struggles of their meaning. Fight language can give us power and has its place … but on the day you really need to fight for something—for your very life, for your very soul—how will the call to arms have any meaning left when its also how you refer to a Facebook spat or resisting a plate of cheese fries?
So I’m vowing today to stop fighting so much. I’ll work, struggle, strive, and strain for a better world. I’ll endure, withstand, and persevere against temptation. I’ll debate, persuade, convince, invite, entreat, and enter into discussion with my ideological opponents. I imagine this paradigm shift will not be easy, but I will pray for strength from the one who blesses the peacemakers.
Steven 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.
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:
The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.
I look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.
I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:
The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.
Dear Abba, Papi
Take all of this and make it new.
With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth
And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,
The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …
All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …
I give you my own flesh.
They have no idea how gentle you are.
How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,
Powerful enough to heal and restore
Every broken cell
Of this Cosmic Body!
So I give you my body, this one life, that your love
May be released into this time and place
Like the lava of love that will never stop.
Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,
To reverence each face as your beloved
And to bear the suffering and resistance that
Will inevitably come
with the grace of your humble surrender,
infinite faith and extravagant love.
I love you with my whole self.
I give this one life I have totally to you.
And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.
You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.
If you have ever looked to improve your time management, you’ve most likely come across the 80/20 rule (more officially known as the Pareto Principle). The Pareto Principle states that frequently, the majority of effects (roughly 80 percent) come from a minority of causes (roughly 20 percent). You will most often find this principle applied in business and economics—it’s not uncommon for 80 percent of a business’s revenue to come from 20 percent of its customers, or for 80 percent of a company’s profitable work to be done by 20 percent of its employees, etc.
The application-to-time management is obvious. It would not be strange to find, according to this principle, that 80 percent of the benefits you receive in life come from about 20 percent of your time, or that 80 percent of the meaningful work you do in your job comes from about 20 percent of your tasks. So the way to optimize your time and your life would be to focus on that meaningful 20 percent and expand it, and to find out what is useless in that other 80 percent and reduce or eliminate it.
I will say that I have used the Pareto Principle to some great effect with some of my lesser habits. In terms of browsing the web I have eliminated (well, lessened) time on sites that I find unenjoyable and which add no value to my life, and increased time reading articles that are interesting or useful. On a day off I spend less time puttering around and doing menial, tedious, and frequently unnecessary tasks and more time tackling big projects or doing things I really enjoy. I’m not sure how true the Pareto Principle is in its business applications but I, at least, have found some personal value in it.
Recently, I turned the lens of this principle to my youth ministry program. And lo and behold, I was shocked to find out how true it appeared to be! With a bunch of my different programs, I found that 80 percent of my time was spent on about 20 percent of my participants. It was always the same 20 percent who called because they forgot the calendar, lost their book, forgot their permission slip, couldn’t get a ride. It was always the same 20 percent of parents who had a problem or a concern or a question or an angry comment.
It was true on the positive side of things too—it was about 20 percent of the parents who stepped up and took a role in the program, who would help teach and chaperone and lead small groups and bring snacks; and it was about 20 percent of the kids who could be counted on through thick and thin to show up on time, come prepared, and lead their peers.
I was reflecting on all this rather militantly as I walked from my office to daily Mass. I thought, I’m going to hack and slash! If you’re a kid and you can’t figure out how to get your permission slip in on time, then you’re not coming! If you’re a flaky helper, then you’re not going to get to be a part of the program anymore! I’m going to expand the role of my good 20 percent and eliminate my bad 20 percent! Optimization! Efficiency! My program will flourish as I begin to focus on the kids and families that really matter!
I thought about it throughout the opening procession and introductory rites; all through the first and second readings. Right up to the beginning of the Gospel for the day:
“What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
A slap across the face from the Lord. I recovered my senses.
The Church is not the world. And we are called to differ from the world in many ways. This is no more true than the insistence that every life, every person, every kid matters. In fact, the one who is difficult, the one costing all the time and energy, the one you struggle with—that is the one who really matters. In youth ministry and in every ministry, we are here for all. That is the Gospel.
I walked back to my office after Mass very humbled. The Pareto Principle is great for optimizing my Internet browsing and useful when I need to balance my budget … but terrible in deciding which kid needs attention. In that case, I am called to the 99/1 principle. So I sat down, picked up the phone, looked up the first number on my “permission slip missing” list, and dialed. “Hello, this is Steven from Church. How are you? Are you still planning on coming on the retreat? That’s great. Do you have your permission slip? No worries, I can get you another copy. You need a ride? No problem, we can make that happen.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lessons #1, #2 and #3). Tune in tomorrow to experience the final installment of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
My husband and I almost canceled our trip to Uganda two weeks before our scheduled departure.
We had just found out the country’s presidential elections would be happening the day after we arrived (the date of which had not been determined when we bought our tickets the previous year). My own knowledge of the political situation in Uganda, combined with a few hasty Google searches, left me fearful that we might be entering a hornet’s nest of political protests and police showdowns—a risk which might have thrilled me 10 years ago, but which I could not stomach as the mother of two young children.
After reaching out to people I trust in Uganda (including, of course, my host family) and a great deal of prayer for discernment, my husband and I decided that canceling our trip would be bending to fears of unlikely “what-ifs” rather than reasonable concerns for our physical safety. Together, we resolved to do something which doesn’t come easily to those of us accustomed to feeling in control of our circumstances: to take a deep breath and trust in God’s protection.
The catch, of course, is that none of us is ever in control of our circumstances, and we are always in need of God’s protection. We just don’t have to confront that reality nearly as often in the United States as in other parts of the world.
My Ugandan family does not take their safety for granted.
Every evening during family prayer, they thank God for the “journey mercies” which have delivered them safely home. Their prayers of thanksgiving for these journey mercies are specific and elaborate, without being morose. For them, there is no fatalism or despondence in acknowledging that their lives are entirely in God’s hands … only profound trust and gratitude.
I do not wish for the dangers of life in Uganda; there is nothing quaint or charming about the fact that the life expectancy of a Ugandan is a full 25 years shorter than my own.
But none of us is getting out of this world alive. My husband and I know, on an intellectual level, that we are not guaranteed to come home tomorrow. We could easily be struck down by a car accident, or a madman, or a disease … So why does it feel disempowering or pessimistic to admit it?
Why do we let the illusion that we are “in control” fool us into thinking we have anyone but God to thank for delivering us safely through the day?
For reflection: How can we who live a comfortable existence identify and express gratitude for the “journey mercies” of everyday life?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She lacks the courage to drive a car in Uganda.
Things are occurring around this country this week that are begging for us to unite and enter into some messy Jesus business—to put our lives on the line for others. Let us make a choice to love our neighbors, even if it’s costly.
Here are three situations where others have put their lives on the line, at times without their choice.
This week, a man stood up to power in Washington D. C. and asked people to cooperate, to put down their weapons and love their neighbor.
He spoke of a teenager who literally sacrificed his life so that others could live:
Zaevion Dobson was a sophomore at Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. He played football, beloved by his classmates and his teachers. His own mayor called him one of their city’s success stories.
The week before Christmas, he headed to a friend’s house to play video games. He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hadn’t made a bad decision. He was exactly where any other kid would be — your kid, my kids. And then gunmen started firing, and Zaevion, who was in high school — hadn’t even gotten started in life — dove on top of three girls to shield them from the bullets, and he was shot in the head and the girls were spared. He gave his life to save theirs. An act of heroism a lot bigger than anything we should ever expect from a 15-year-old. “Greater love hath no man than this than a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We are not asked to do what Zaevion Dobson did. We’re not asked to have shoulders that big, a heart that strong, reactions that quick. I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage or sacrifice or love. But if we love our kids and care about their prospects, and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote. We can find the courage to get mobilized and organized. We can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do.
That’s what we’re doing today. And tomorrow, we should do more, and we should do more the day after that. And if we do, we’ll leave behind a nation that’s stronger than the one we inherited and worthy of the sacrifice of a young man like Zaevion.
The man who was speaking was, of course, President Obama.
The entire speech he gave is worthwhile of watching:
Zaevion made a choice to give of his life to protect others, but it wasn’t a choice he should have been faced with. And, like President Obama said, we can make a choice to put our lives on the line out of love for our neighbors too, by at least standing up for what’s right.
This week, children have been deported back into countries in Central America that are raging with civil wars and gang violence.
This is not something I can get behind. As explained here, it was strategic for these deportations to occur this week:
The Obama administration has launched a big effort to deport those families to begin 2016. And it’s raiding residential neighborhoods to find and arrest the families — a tactic that a lot of immigrants and immigration advocates have traumatic associations with.
(I can’t help but to wonder if President Obama thought we might not notice this quiet cruelty if we’re all buzzing about ending gun violence.)
I am angry and heartsick about this inhumane way that people are being forced to put their lives on the line. We are a nation of immigrants and we have a human responsibility to be merciful to those who are poor and fleeing violence. No family should ever be broken apart and thrown into a war zone.
I hope that Christians can rally and demand a compassionate end to this family violence. Their lives are in danger and we can afford to take a courageous risk on their behalf.
This story is actually from last week. It’s an amazing story that could give us all courage and hope.
On New Years Eve while a Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was having service, a man came into the church with a semi-automatic assault rifle, was greeted, helped, patted down (and handed over his gun), embraced, welcomed and then peacefully brought to the hospital by police—but only after the church service was over and he was able to pray with others.
The pastor put his life on the line for his congregation and it had an effect. Violence was halted because love, mercy, and human kindness were in action.
No matter the circumstances that are crying out to us for compassionate attention, let us pray together that by the strength of God each of us will always respond with love, mercy, and human kindness. Let us give of ourselves and put our lives on the line, even if it’s dangerous or uncomfortable.
After all, a really good man, Jesus—love enfleshed, commanded it of us:
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this,j to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.This I command you: love one another. –John 15:12-17
Let us all enter into the story of Christmas and consider the amazing Truth: our God humbly, beautifully, became one of us.
We, as a humanity, have never been the same since. The Incarnation really changed everything. Now, we are people of the New Covenant, this Messianic Age.
God’s entrance into the grime of our human living means that we are transformed into holy co-creators with God.
If we REALLY think about it, and pray about it, we can’t help to have our minds totally blown with wonder and awe.
And, then, hopefully, once we realize that we are empowered to use all of our human potential—our minds, gifts, strengths, and passions—we’ll want to offer it all to God and help create the justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed.
We’ll ask hard questions, seek true answers, and allow ourselves to really be in the messy business of social and personal change.
That’s what I invite you all into this week: to join me in honoring the Baby Jesus by signing up your life; becoming part of the messy business of living as a change-maker.
Together, let’s say yes to the Love of God with all that we are. Amen!
By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s a film that I am excited to see in La Crosse in about nine days that fits with the work of being messy, Incarnation-centered change-makers:
It is amazing to me that it is nearly Messy Jesus Business‘ 5th Birthday! Thanks be to God that I listened to the encouragement of my community and friends to start a blog about living the Gospel and we’re still going strong.
I have been humbled by praise I’ve heard over these five years for the goodness found on this site. I’ll never forget the strangeness of first meeting someone who was a devoted reader of MJB (but a stranger to me) and how encouraged I felt about the importance of maintaining this presence (Thanks Melissa!). Plus, MJB has helped me gain the practice I’ve needed to come into other opportunities such as serving as a Horizons columnist for Global Sisters Report and being a regular contributor to Living Faith. (By the way, October 7, 2014—the day my first Living Faith reflection appeared—MJB had its biggest day with 1,031 views!)
Thanks be to God for the blessed community of Rabble Rousers who have indeed helped keep this blog going. I was very reluctant to begin blogging since I know I live a very busy life and usually have a bit too much on my plate, so to speak. But, with the collaboration of my awesome messy, Gospel-centered friends, we have been able to explore together some deeply important aspects of being the Church we hope for.
Some of the Rabble Rousers have contributed gratitude reflections to help us celebrate MJB‘s 5th birthday:
Being a part of the Messy Jesus Business community has helped me to not miss the trees for the forest, so to speak. In the midst of what sometimes feels like a large, confusing, abstract struggle for peace and justice, Sister Julia and the other bloggers remind me to slow down and focus on small moments and little victories—to celebrate where we are and where we’ve been even though a long journey still lies before us.
I love that this is a safe place for us to get messy. I think my thoughts are freakishly weird, and my spirituality is even more so. Sometimes I hesitate to share, but maybe someone else gets it, too. And that’s the beauty of this experience for which I am grateful.
Because having Jesus at the center of my love and commitment has always been messy, I treasure the freedom in MJB to connect my faith to real life. Where else can I talk about fears about celibacy, accepting my brokenness, exhaustion, Pope Francis, TV crime dramas, child slavery, final vows, violence against women, The Bachelorette and yard maintenance? Because it is always in these details of life that I find my Jesus.
As a parent to small children, my daily discipleship is truly messy –both literally and spiritually!I am deeply grateful to this blog for giving me a community with whom I can share, ponder, and grow in our collective messiness as followers of Christ.
I am very thankful for how this ministry of writing and witness has transformed my life. I am extremely appreciative for all the voices that have contributed to our communal contemplation about how messy discipleship truly is. Thank you writers, thanks to Jen and Jane for their help with editing and format, thank you to everyone who has commented and shared the posts, and thanks to all of you for subscribing.
I rejoice over how this messy little corner on the internet has helped contribute to the building of God’s reign of peace and justice; I am so grateful that the Spirit is at work here!
Thank your for your participation! Thank you for reading! Happy Thanksgiving! And, Happy 5th Birthday to Messy Jesus Business!!!
According to many who were present on Saturday, it was obvious I was boldly burning with a fire of love for Jesus; my family; my friends; my FSPA sisters; my Rabble Rousers; and my partners in a life of Messy Jesus Business, including all of you!
May God bless us–we are all in this Messy Jesus Business as we set the world on fire with Gospel love! Amen!