Every ordinary day, I am reminded that I am weak and desperately need God.
When I forget the birthday of someone dear to me, when I lose my keys, when irritation and anger bubble up in my heart–each experience of imperfection can block my trust in God.
I am tempted to think I am worthless and ought to stop trying. In times like these, this song speaks to me.
I want to avoid admitting my brokenness. I would rather freeze and stop turning to God. Yet, I know that only God can provide the freedom and hope I need. Here is a tune to inspire faith and freewill.
I know I am a sinner. I can be cruel and selfish. Ugly thoughts and actions clog up the loving in my life. I feel dirty and worthless. Here is a song for trials like these.
Sometimes my faith doesn’t feel deep. I get it in my heart that God has the ability to work great miracles, to free me from troubles in the most dramatic of ways. Yet, my head doubts that will happen. This song helps keep hope alive.
I am constantly on a journey of conversion and transformation, as God brings me through these challenges. This tune helps me remember that God is with me in my lows and the awesome highs of life.
In the end, God’s embrace is the greatest place of peace I know. I am so restless, and God is the only source of rest and strength.
Thanks be to God for the comfort we all can know, for the music that will help us make our way through the beautiful mess of the human experience.
“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.
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.
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.
Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!
My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.
Here are a few:
Having a thought does not make it true
I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…
Neither repress nor obsess
When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.
I can’t. God can. Let God.
This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”
People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).
When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…
Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.
Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.
God. God. God.
Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:
Give everything to God.
Increase my self-care.
Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.
About The Rabble Rouser
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
My heart is broken this week. I am aching with everyone who has been hurt in any way by the shooting in Orlando.
I am bemoaning the brokenness in our world, the division, violence, judgement, and hate that allow such awful atrocities to occur. I am angry that our nation’s laws fail to protect the common good and instead make it easy for violent people to access weapons and massacre anyone they desire.
I am challenged by the love of God found in Scripture, the instructions to be people of mercy and compassion:
So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. ~ James 2:12-13
The law we live by is a law of love and freedom.
This is not a time for judgement. This is a time for unity, compassion, mercy and love.
This is a time to respond to cries and pleads for our kindness and prayers. As Andy Moss says in this video from CNN, we are needed to be instruments of mercy and love right now:
“Keep praying. I am not a very religious person, but whatever religion you are—whatever you believe—keep sending it our way. We all need that hope. Keep praying for us. We all need it.”
Let us pray with the hope that Andy needs from us that this is the final massacre, and that our nation will change our mindsets, hearts, and laws.
God of mercy and peace, we cry out to you for help and guidance during this time of sadness and pain. We mourn the dead and we mourn our sins that have allowed such violence to occur. We pray for everyone who is impacted by violence. Receive the beloved deceased into their heavenly home and comfort those who are suffering. Surround them with your love and peace. We pray for everyone who is tempted to perpetuate violence and for an end to easy access to weapons. Give us the grace we need to imitate you and live according to your laws of love and freedom. God, you are the source of peace and justice and we believe that you can guide us to conversion. Unite as one people and change our minds, hearts, and laws so that there will never again be another massacre. Give us the strength to be people of peace and love. Help us to be people of forgiveness and mercy and heal our broken hearts and ways and grant us peace.
As a Midwesterner, I don’t know much about deserts. I’ve visited some deserts in places like Namibia and New Mexico though, and have always found the environment very strange and mysterious; it’s not really barren as a lot of life and beauty thrives in the dryness. I certainly don’t know much about springtime in such a landscape, but I understand that desert dwellers also experience the season—just very differently than we do here in the Midwest.
Yet, I know Lent is really not about the dryness and emptiness we associate with deserts—even though it’s often what fasting feels like at first. Rather, Lent is about signs of spring: refreshment, renewal and growth.
We manifest these signs of spring to each other as we offer gestures of love, kindness and service to one another during these 40 days. Our actions make us into signs and transform the world around us. We freshen the environment, the culture, and our community and make marks of preparation. In a way, our actions become like little party decorations that get us really ready for the power, mystery, conversion and celebration that happens in Holy Week.
Our Lenten actions are definitely signs of spring. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vibrant signs of hope for a hurting humanity. Our works of mercy in motion can be encouragement for each other, when we keep flopping and failing in our Lenten practices, getting discouraged and realizing, again, how much we need God. As we share Christ’s love may we keep our eyes open and see the green life coming forth from each of us, and may we keep our ears open to hear the beautiful, encouraging songs of the returned birds.
The signs of spring are all around us in this Lenten desert. May we lean on each other as a beloved community and see each other as signs of real renewal and hope.
Recently, I have heard a lot of people say “If that person becomes our president, I am seriously terrified about what might happen to our world.” Each time I’ve heard this, I have noticed I am quick to empathize with them, to nod in agreement, to let my own fears be voiced and magnify the concern in their comment. Basically, I keep finding that I tend to contribute to the fear mongering and help make a mountain of fear from a molehill of concern.
This recent pattern has left me wondering: What happened to my tendency to be an optimistic person? Why are we all so afraid? And, how is Christ really inviting us to respond during this Lenten season?
I don’t think I have it all figured out. But, I am pretty sure about this: practically everyone I know — including myself — is…
Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.
It’s time to make some changes.
On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.
Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.
The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.
Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.
God totally, unconditionally, loves us just as we are.
And, we are creatures of desire, of yearnings and hopes, longing for more—betterment, growth and newness.
Personally, I am a very restless creature who is frequently discontent and living with a wandering heart and mind; I feel like I am always having conversations with God about what adventures I am missing out on—even though my life is abundantly blessed and graced right here, right now.
I’ve written about this before. I am conscious that this will be a lifelong struggle for me. I hate to admit it, but I might be a bit of an adventure addict.
Even so, until I watched this video, it never occurred to me that my cycles of dissatisfaction are breaking the 9th and 10th commandments:
Lord, have mercy. Forgive us for coveting what we do not have or who we are not made to be. Give us the grace to notice the blessings and beauty in our daily lives, and to recognize that you love us unconditionally, completely just as we are. May we always be graced with grateful hearts and attitudes.
We pray in the dark during these Advent days while we wait for the coming of the Light, of love enfleshed.
The darkness is everywhere and impacts each of us. We encounter pain and violent words, messages and behavior when we pay attention to the news, when we share in our neighbor’s pain, when we tune into the tension and the fear that is intensely plaguing humanity. Even the earth itself seems to be mourning our destructiveness and greed. Our hearts ache with sadness and anger as shootings, terrorism, and hate-mongering become more frequent.
In the darkness of discouragement, temptation comes quick. Maybe I shouldn’t bother or What difference does it make if I am charitable? or Why should I help them if I can’t even get my own life together? or How can we trust anyone!? Ugly attitudes of apathy and doubt can creep in and corrode at our faith and hope. Just like everyone else, we are capable of turning away from love and succumbing to fear and hate.
It is messy and challenging, but by the grace of God, we will not give into temptation. We will resist all darkness by offering compassionate alternatives in the face of fear and pain. The words of Ephesians 5 shall be our marching song as we rise up and rally as children of light:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light,for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them,for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret;but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says:
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” –Ephesians 5:8-14
Yes, there are many ways that we can resist this darkness and unite as children of the light. Especially now that the Jubilee Year of Mercy has begun, we will act as instruments of forgiveness and mercy.
Pope Francis has invited us all to imitate God, as mercy is an action, an attitude that the world desperately needs from us all now. “Mercy-ing calls us to forgive the unforgivable, to look tenderly upon the unappealing and the troublesome, to be compassionate to the ungrateful. It demands that we give a full measure, packed down and flowing over, and to empty our granaries again and again for those who cannot hope to repay us. It asks us to open our hands and hearts, not because we expect mercy in return, but because who we yearn to become could not—did not—do anything less for us.” Although the word mercy-ing is made up by Pope Francis, this aspect of our faith goes all the way back to the days of Christ.
There are many ways that we can resist the darkness and get active mercy-ing during this Advent time.
Here are just a few examples of what others are doing. No one of us can do it all, so when one of us is mercy-ing then we all are:
Today, on Human Rights Day, and on other days we rally throughout the world. (Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the international adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
We recommit ourselves to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We prayerfully say “yes” to the Gospel mission of loving our neighbors and enemies.
Photo credit: Southern Rosary Works
We resist racism and xenophobia by opening our hearts, our Churches, our homes to refugees and immigrants.
We pray for an end of all forms of torture and violence and speak out on behalf of the victims.
The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.
Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.
What does it really mean, that
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10
This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.
“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”
Or in other words….
In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.
In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.
In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.
Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.
P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.
“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”