Three steps to changes, inspired by Dr. King

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Throughout the United States we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday next week.

Some of us will attend parades or prayer services to feed our souls with the words of good speakers and the sound of great music. Many will participate in the National Day of Service. Others will watch television specials or talk to children about the goodness of cultural diversity. Maybe we’ll eat soul food or listen to Gospel music. Or perhaps we’ll learn about the current landscapes of inequality and injustice and loudly say “Amen” at the end of every prayer for social change.

Yet, I imagine that many (most?) of us will likely let the day go by without much consideration of why Dr. King was martyred, why we’re honoring him. Some of us will savor the benefit of a three-day weekend by shopping, binge-watching and catching up on sleep.

I get it. Our lives are packed and we keep a busy pace. Laboring for the reign of God with all our might in our little corners of the world wears us out. It takes a lot from us to work to make peace and justice as common as air. We’re tired, we’re spent. We need rejuvenation to fight the good fight day in and day out.

Yes, we need rest and renewal. But I would like to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not the day. That’s what the weekly sabbath is for. (Remember that commandment God gave us?)

So, here’s what I propose. It’s what I plan to do. I will empower King’s legacy, enable it to change me this time around. I will carry it with me through 2020 with less inadequate activisim and more openness to conversion. And, I invite you to join me in my simple plan.

Step 1.) I will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings or speeches. This might be his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. If I can’t read the speech carefully and studiously, I’ll listen to it. And, if I don’t have the time or energy to read an entire speech, I will read previous Messy Jesus Business posts dedicated to his legacy or at least consider some of the following quotes on war and peace (included here):

More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. “Don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have the compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Strength to Love, 13 April 1960 

I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957 

It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968

Step 2.) I will imagine a society constructed on the principles that King proclaimed and notice where I am challenged and disturbed. (After all, if I want to change the world, I must start by changing myself!)

I will pray, journal and/or do a lot of thinking related to King’s vision, looking to see how I get in the way of peace and justice flourishing. Here’s some questions I might start with: How would the circumstances of 2020 look differently if we took the principles of nonviolence to heart? What role could I play to dismantle racism and inequality? How do I need to change my mind, heart and behaviors so that the life I am living demonstrates that I truly believe love is the strongest power? How is the Spirit inviting me to grow and change so that I help create a world where there is more peace and justice for people of every race, class and creed?

Step 3.) In response to my reflection, I will envision myself changing my behaviors and then make a plan.

Perhaps I could explore new groups to join (like I found on this website and this one too), find upcoming meetings or calls to action and offer my help. (I’ve attended many events over the years, but have rarely offered more than my participation.) Maybe I need to learn more about issues like gentrification or white privilege that currently plague the poor and marginalized. Maybe I’ll write the president or call my legislators. I’ll look at my calendar and give myself a deadline for a new action.

Whatever I do, I’ll pray about it. I’ll invite the Spirit to guide me, work through me and show me where I am being called. Because however I am called to change it will be a struggle. I need God’s help. We all do.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back to the basics in a time of war

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

In the light of the epiphany star and the glowing headlines this week, the Spirit is convincing me that it’s time for us to get back to basics, to recenter on the core values of the Christian faith.

It seems that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, the truth is muddled with propaganda, commentary, and commotion. We hear leaders defend violence and division. We hear justifications for assassinations and tearing families apart. Deep in our bodies,e feel the chaos, the polarities and the pain of this time. We try to catch our breath in the middle of our busy days. To remain calm and loving.

Meanwhile, the trenches of sorrow and pollution are carved deeper into human community and every part of the planet. People are hurting, dying. Species are going extinct. Disasters and violence are damaging entire ecosystems, destroying civilizations. It’s no wonder that many of us feel confused, stressed and worked up. In this atmosphere, despondency comes naturally.

Yet, we’re Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ: the Love of God in Human form. We follow a teacher and friend who modeled for us how to live out the Gospel, to be people of Good News no matter how tough things get.

The Gospel principles are pretty straight-forward, too: Compassion. Mercy. Nonviolence. Unity. Trust in God. Faith. Community. Being nonjudgmental. Kindness. Forgiveness. Peacemaking. Prayer. Relationships. Love.

Although remaining grounded in the basics gets messy, it’s essential that we do. It keeps us centered on Jesus and helps us to be part of the Church we dream of, that we are called to create.

When I am striving to get back to the basics, I find it helpful to return to the Word of God, to pray with the Scriptures that say it straight. Perhaps it will help you, too.

Compassion

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. — Colossians 3:12-13

Mercy

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Nonviolence

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21

Unity

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. — 1 Peter 3:9

Trust in God

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. — Proverbs 3:5-6

Faith

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. — James 2:14-26

Community

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching. — Romans 12:3-13

Being Nonjudgmental

Judge not, that you be not judged. — Matthew 7:1

Kindness

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. — Ephesians 4:32

Forgiveness.

But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. — Matthew 6:15

Peacemaking

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. — Matthew 5:43-44

Prayer

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. — Philippians 4:6

Relationships

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Peter 4:8

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. — 1 Thessalonians 5:11

With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. — Ephesians 4:2-3

Love

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. — Luke 6:34

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:29-31

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:8

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remain rooted in the basics, no matter how tough the times may be.

Let us refuse to give into the temptations and avoid the traps and tensions of our time. We are called to be children of light, to shine God’s love counter-culturally. Let us be people of community and compassion, remembering we’re in this together, we need each other.

Together, as one, by the grace of God, we can be rooted in the basics and on the right track, praying along the way.

God of Love and Mercy, When the chaos and the division of the world tempts us to turn away from you and your teachings, we turn to you for guidance and grace. With your help, may we remain centered on you and your love. May we not become muddled or mixed up by pain and heartache or lose hope and faith. We want to walk as children of your light, as people who share your mercy and kindness in every circumstance. Have mercy on us, oh God, and help us to love like you. We pray this through Christ our Lord, our Way, Truth and Life. Amen.

Photo by Remi Yuan on Unsplash

Finding the faces of God in the dark

Lately, a memory keeps surfacing.

rocking-chair-dark-small-window-light
Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

I am struggling with my mental health and, almost before it begins, I am having a particularly hard day. Sitting in my chair, trying to get started, I call my counselor for help. I tell him, “All I have on my schedule today is an appointment with my psychiatrist. That’s all I have the energy for. Can I do that and nothing else? Can I skip eating?” He replied, “You have to eat. It could be just cheese and crackers or a peanut butter sandwich, but you have to eat something.”

So that’s what I did that day. I went to my appointment and I ate a simple bowl of ramen. I was practicing self-care in the best way I could.

On my spiritual path, through depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts, I sat in the darkness for a long time. And I discovered the God Who Stays. I didn’t know where I was going when I found this God who just stayed with me in the darkness. I also gained comfort from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

If I am having a good day, God is here. If I am unable to get out of the chair, if I want to drop off the ends of the earth, God is here. I love how brilliant this psalmist is! I can’t see through the darkness around me, but God can. God sees me! God knows me always.

Gradually, as I came to a little more light and love in my life, I began to discover the God Who Heals. This is an active, moving God who groans when I groan and who breathes life into my broken bones. Paul says in Romans 8:22, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” The God Who Heals knows my pain intimately, but she also knows light and helps me reach toward it.

This memory is a good example of the God Who Heals. I am journaling and working on my low self-esteem. I know that I hate myself and I want that to change. So I write down one small step that I can take to improve it. I decide I am going to make a commitment to brushing my teeth twice a day. This seems like a basic self-care that I don’t always practice. When I tell a friend of my commitment, she asks me why I chose that action. I say, “Because I don’t want to be so gross and I want to be cleaner for others,” to which she replies, “Oh, I thought it was because you are treating yourself as precious.” Whoa! I never thought of that reason, but yes, I am treating myself as precious.

The God Who Heals is the one who is with me as I slowly try to care for myself. He helps me to see myself as precious and is patient when I am incapable.

woman-lying-in-lilacs
Sister Sarah Hennessey

Now that I am in a steady place of recovery and have more joy in my life, I am becoming acquainted with the God Who Loves. I feel that love as I face a new challenge, as I reach out to a friend in need, and as I walk in nature. The God Who Loves helps me to see myself with gentle eyes and to hold compassion for the world around me.

Recently, I took a survey about myself that measured both my creative and reactive leadership characteristics. I then passed the survey on to 15 people with whom I have worked in a variety of capacities for their input. When I received the results, the data was reported as a graph. There was a clear pattern. For many of my creative abilities, I gave myself a low rating. Everyone else rated me much higher. The measurements for my reactive tendencies were the opposite. Negative traits were also assessed: I rated myself quite high while the others gave me a much lower score. It was a stunning picture in black and white of how my self-view varies from how other people see me. The facilitator who explained the results to me said that this was a quite common pattern, especially for women religious.

The God Who Loves sees me and knows me as I am. So do the God Who Stays and the God Who Heals. All of these images of God have been growing with me as I grow. God meets me exactly where I am and helps me to become more fully myself. As my spiritual path continues, all of these images stay with me and shape me. I am so curious.

I wonder what other faces of God I will meet.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

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 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 her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

Missed connections and lonely souls

Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.

I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).

At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.

I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.

What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.

And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.

The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.

Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.

It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.

The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.

For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.

There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.

And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.

The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.

Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.

For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.

The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ. 

The peace we’ve been given

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
John 14:27

as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
this is the peace that allows
this is the peace that accepts
this is the peace that invites
transformation, emergence
outreach, courage, trust, love
this peace causes commotion
this peace deepens consciousness
this peace builds community
diverse, celebrating, embracing
inner spaces open wider
minds, hearts and bodies
wildly restored and offered
into war zones as peacemakers
crossing borders and lines
we listen and love and learn
new languages, new ways
as peacemakers we share
and change
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
as peace

Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

disciples-running
“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

My celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love

On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

three-women-taxi
Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh and Eileen McKenzie sharing the love of community (image courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA).

What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?

I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.

For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

group-of-many-Franciscan-sisters
Many FSPA, including Sisters Sarah and Julia, celebrate community at a Post-Vatican II gathering. (image courtesy of Sister Katie Mitchell)

Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.  

Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.

Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL

I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.

Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”

I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.

As Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote in the 1200s,

“Lord, you are my lover,

My longing,

My flowing stream,

My sun,

And I am your reflection.”

Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey 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, singing 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.

Finding common ground in the din of debate

Debate divides this nation, and democracy is in disarray.

On one hand, we enjoy light, good-natured disagreements:

— Is the dress blue and black or white and gold?

Photo credit: https://www.zenia.com/2015/11/19/black-and-blue-dress/

— Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?

And then, there are the more serious debates; the ones that could be causing our civility to crumble.

The latest is emotional, intense: were the high school students recently filmed in DC being racist and mocking Native Americans? Or, were they just caught up in a complex situation?

As I observe the debate and consider how our government is failing to serve the common good right now, I have noticed I am not compelled pick a side; to make a public statement condemning anyone.

Why am I reluctant to stand up for peace and justice? Am I afraid of something, like offending a partner in ministry or someone I care about? Am I undecided about what’s right and wrong? Am I refusing to stand with the oppressed and marginalized?

I have been praying with these questions because I want to be a courageous disciple; I want share Christ’s light and love. And, I think that’s why the answer — that my opinions or outcry will not contribute any peace or unity — has come to me in prayer. It will only add to the din. The last thing our society needs right now is more din and debate. It is time for us to listen to another, to dialogue, to discover our common ground and work toward rebuilding a society full of peace and justice. The kingdom of God that Jesus established, the building of which is our Christian mission.

Certainly it’s valuable for me to evaluate my hidden prejudices — to attend to the ways that judgement can influence how I understand or react to situations. We all need to do this; it’s part of growing in health and holiness.

Even more importantly, though, is the call to increase the compassion and mercy offered to others, no matter who they are. Teenagers, Native Americans, republicans, democrats, African Americans or people who look and think like us — everyone deserves compassion and mercy.

I’ve learned how to get in touch with my own darkness, with my own ability to get involved in complex social sins. I do this by trying to see myself in others — even those who are clearly different than me. In other words, I try to imagine the story of how my life might have led me to behaving badly. I could have ended up a white supremacist if I would have felt desperate and allowed myself to become convinced by the propaganda I was exposed to as a youth growing up in rural America. I could have become involved in crime; in drugs and other addictions. I could have perpetuated violence and oppression upon others. I could have flaunted my privileges in ugly ways. I can imagine the narratives, the ways my life could have gotten me into trouble. I am no better than anyone else. We are all capable of evil.

Even though my life has gone in different directions (fortunately!), I still carry the potential to give into the temptations, to succumb to the darkness. Most of us do. And freedom is found in allowing ourselves see the truth of who we are; the truth of how desperately we need God’s grace, mercy and guidance. Only with God’s help can we grow in holiness and be peacemakers. This is the light we are called to offer.

Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

When it comes to the complexity of sin and the din of debate, I believe the only way forward into God’s reign is to increase compassion and decrease judgement. Sharing this light will increase unity and peace.

Let us set down the stones and stop condemning one another.

Early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:2-11

Let us try, by the grace of God, to go and sin no more.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice

The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.

One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.

Mostar, Bosnia, a city heavily bombed during during the war in Yugoslavia covered by Chris Hedges while he was a war correspondent (photo by Sophie Vodvarka)

Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.

Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.

I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.

I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.

The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.

This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:

1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.

2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.

3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sophie Vodvarka

Photo courtesy Sophie Vodvarka

 

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

God, the Ocean

A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.

(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)

I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away,  and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.

(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.

You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark. 

On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.

Sunset at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A couple of days ago, while working on preparations for a writers’ retreat I am leading, my study brought me to this letter to artists by St. Pope John Paul II, which I didn’t know about before. A quick read brought me to this phrase, a total thrill:

“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” – St. Pope John Paul II

Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.

This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.

St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.

And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.

I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.

Will you come and swim with me?

At Cape Point, South Africa in 2002.