We’re standing on holy ground

We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.

We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.

We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

(Photo Credit: GlobalSistersReport.org / CNS / Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

Messy Christian music playlist

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.

Amen!

 

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Being a companion through the mystery of suffering

I’ve never had any training in hospital chaplaincy, and I know little about medicine. Like many people, I feel awkward and uncomfortable around suffering. I prefer what I know how to manage, like the classroom where I teach. But when an acquaintance’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, was in a serious bike accident, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing to go and sit with her and her family.

My response to Elizabeth’s need wasn’t measured or thought-out. Rather, it seemed to gush from a natural space in my heart. I found that I could not…

 

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for U.S. Catholic. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Good Friday: The crosses we create

Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.

Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.

station 8

For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.

 

Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”

We refused to speak out against—or to even realize—the ways that we accept and allow racist systems to continue, economically and politically. We burdened others with heavy beams.

We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.

We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.

We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.

We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.

 

We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.

Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.

 Yet it was our pain that he bore,

our sufferings he endured.

We thought of him as stricken,

struck down by God and afflicted,

But he was pierced for our sins,

crushed for our iniquity.

He bore the punishment that makes us whole,

by his wounds we were healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5

 

Our God who Suffers

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins committed suicide.

It was a shock to all of us who knew and loved him. His death still remains sad and painful for many of us. Personally, the experience of suffering with my family taught me much about the power of God’s love.

In a new way I now understand: no matter how hard or heavy an experience of suffering, God is stronger than the pain. God who is Love and Light is not overcome by any darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

This past weekend at mass, I was reminded of the lessons I learned about love and light through my cousin’s death. I remembered how my family amazed me by the ways we united and showed up and showed love to one another in all the ways we knew how.

Yesterday’s scripture readings speak about this part of our Christian faith. Jesus reaches out to those who suffer and Jesus suffers with us when we suffer.

God became a person as Jesus. He entered into a particular time and place in history which was full of intense suffering. Then, Jesus who was fully God even suffered during his life and in his death. As yesterday’s scripture said, God amazingly heals the brokenhearted. Jesus tended to the sick and the suffering, including people of all types in the healing.

This is our story. We are Gospel people. People who suffer and enter into the suffering of others. We live the Gospel by exposing ourselves to the suffering of others and allowing their pain to be part of our story.

In fact, the Gospel Truth is that “the birth of Love …came to guide us and lure us toward beauty and hope and justice. It didn’t overcome [suffering] with it’s own sense of fear.” (I recently listened to a podcast that said this.) In this Truth there’s another important dynamic. Our story of suffering is God’s story of suffering.

Our culture is clogged with noise that can distract us away from the ways that our Gospel living ought to compel us to be uncomfortable and enter into suffering. Instead of avoiding suffering like advertisements tell us to, those of us who are Gospel people try to move toward it.

How do we move toward suffering? Through action and prayer. We happily hang out with people who are homeless and see what they can teach us about Truth. We advocate for the closing of unjust prisons and for reform to laws that cause more harm than good. Or as I find myself doing a lot lately, we pray with and care for those who weep because they have known sudden death. All this Gospel activity is mercy-making in the mess.

Surrounded by it and challenged by it, we are reminded of important truths of this Gospel of Love. Suffering is a mystery that can’t be avoided. Our Christian life is tough and challenging on purpose. The Paschal mystery insists that Easter Sundays must be followed by Good Fridays.

When we suffer, God also suffers. Somehow, by suffering we can come to know God.

At my cousin’s funeral, the hugs from my relatives were all a little longer and harder than they normally are. Our shoulders were all a little damp as we cried together. For me, these physical expressions of Love were a bit of light in the darkness. Simple human acts help me experience the closeness of our amazing, suffering God. God who is a light stronger than any darkness or pain. Alleluia! Amen!

"moon over water" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“moon over water” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

beauty with ugly: our real Advent stories

Our lives are made of Advent stories. As advent people, pain and sorrow erupt right with joy and elation.

A couple of days ago, I had a real Advent experience.

I know a darling preschooler who I believe is a modern child saint. She teaches her stuffed animals how to pray the sign of the cross and she loves talking to her younger siblings about God.  I love her and her parents a lot, as they are some of my dearest friends from college.  The other day I heard from the three-and-a-half year old’s mother and learned that this dear little girl has been diagnosed with leukemia.  The message was a request for prayers, as she must now go through chemotherapy for the next two-and-a-half years. (Please join us in prayers for miracles.)  The awful news sunk my heart to a near-collapse.

While I was the middle of emailing a prayer request for the little girl and her family to my community’s adoration chapel coordinator, my phone rang.  It was my dad. He was calling to tell me that my younger sister had her highly anticipated baby and I am now an aunt! After I squealed and shed a few tears of joy, I added another line to my email before I sent it. “In thanksgiving for the birth of my nephew!”

My prayer request was a combination of sorrow and elation.  Together, my email was a cry for help and a message of praise and thanksgiving.

In a matter of minutes my heart experienced the extremes of our chaotic, human experience.  In each of our lives, the beauty and joy coincides with the awful and ugly every day.

"lamp with chipped paint" by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“lamp with chipped paint” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Thousands of years ago, God’s people were exiled and had forgotten their promise to be faithful to the covenant.  They started repenting and saying they were sorry for breaking God’s great law of love.  Then a great voice came forward and told them to change out of their penitential clothes and get all dressed up.  It was time, he said, to show that they were children of God, made out of beauty and love. Sure, they had messed up, but there were reasons to rejoice and have hope.

Here’s what the prophet said:

Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitre
that displays the glory of the eternal name.
For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.
Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights;
look to the east and see your children
gathered from the east and the west
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that they are remembered by God.
Led away on foot by their enemies they left you:
but God will bring them back to you
borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.
For God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
The forests and every fragrant kind of tree
have overshadowed Israel at God’s command;
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.   -Baruch 5:1-9

Our God has created a mysterious, paradoxical world.  Our human ways are messy and ugly, yet beautiful and glorious.  It’s in nature: if we examine a swamp we can see life coming out of the mud.  If we go to our gardens, we can notice how the decay of our compost waste renews and restores new life.

We can also look at the impacts of our human actions.  If we go to our war-zones we can see art rising from the destruction.  We can also see how the songs of symphonies are sometimes created from slums of our trash. The stories in this movie make that very literal:

It’s true and just like all of us!  Despite our garbage, we get to be instruments of God and make music to sparkle out God’s glory.  Even if all the darkness is too heavy or we feel like we are just ugly waste, God can create us into something new. We don’t really know what that will be.  Let’s stay open while we wait.

Instruments can only make good music if they are empty and open.  As instruments of God,  joyful songs of hope and beauty can ring through our empty, broken sorrowing souls.  God makes the music, we need to be ready to do the work.

These are real Advent stories that teach us about an Advent way of being.  In our world of pain and darkness, the Light of Christ is glowing bright.  We are children of that Light!  We get to act like our parent, and help the Light illumine the darkness.  Daily we get to say yes to helping beauty be right along side the dirt of our pain and sorrow.

It’s such good news!  We get to trust and have hope, by God’s grace our ugly stories and feelings can become songs of beauty and light! Amen!  Happy Advent!

oh, God

The solid statues seem to suggest that the horror of the cross is only historical.  We gather in dark churches to remember, and mix the meaning into our mind right along side wars, genocide, crusades and the holocaust.  Black and white photos in the history books tell us to keep telling the story and memorialize the dead.

This cross, though, is different from those other events.  Although it’s historical, it’s also eternal.  Every day we are wounded, nailed, bled, broken, bruised. We’re doing it to ourselves and each other. It happened before, and it’s happening today.  The pain we acknowledge today is as real now as it was then.

Maybe our praying with the cross today matters to our brothers and sisters of history after all.   Maybe this cross is broad and bigger than our mixed up human minds can fathom.  Maybe it can heal the wounds of history and change all humanity.

loving to death

My holy week began in a simple rural church in Iowa. With crowds of farming families I chanted “crucify him, crucify him.”  My voice shook with shame.  It’s not pretend, it’s prayer.  Tears welled up within.  Why did the Church design it that I have to be the one who sentences my love to death?

Stone-cold statues of the stations of the cross lined the peaceful church.  In each, I see a face of Jesus etched with history and sorrow.  Jesus leans over an angel and looks at me in the pew, praying with questions.  Suffering is redemptive, I’ve learned.  Emotions stew within as I think of my love beaten, bruised, bloody, broken.

I sang “Hosanna” and held crisp, spring green branches but knew where the story was going next.  I knew about the cross, the death and the resurrection.  Except for the cooing children, I think we all did. Yet, we’re intense.  It’s ugly to face it: Love nailed to death.

As I gaze upon the cross this week, I shall consider all the hurt that I know.  I have been hurt and I have hurt others, at times I have even hurt myself.  The hurt of all humanity and creation stares back at me from the wood of the cross.

It’s personal and universal.  Personally, I have turned away from my love every time; I’ve allowed my good intentions to get clouded by pride, selfishness and lies.  Together, our social sins continually crush earth and community onto bloody boards.  The body of Christ is wounded.  We are that body.

Our eyes sting with the truth that love hurts.  I ache and I remember that the journey of the cross is the story that we live everyday. These are the moments of our community.  It’s not tidy at all, nor crisp with clarity.

The dust stirs on the statues. Chipped memories acknowledge that redemption began with the incarnation. He came to love, live, set free and therefore die. It’s because His love was so bold and non-violent that he was killed.  I am stuck in the story.

Hurt throbs through the questions.  Do I really understand?  Am I willing to die for what he lived?  Can I? Am I?