In the Christian journey’s four seasons, “All Shall be Well”

For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.

In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.

My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.

I hadn’t thought about all this in a while, but it came back to mind as I read All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World by Catherine McNiel.

I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of,  Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)

The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.

Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.

Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.

Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ and then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.

On parenting, poverty, and privilege

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Nicole’s youngest daughter, Adelina, washes clothes at a pila. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.

We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.

As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.

I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.

Because we could leave.

If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.

I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).

Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.

I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).

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Kiara (left) and Adelina, Nicole’s daughters, experience the beauty of a Honduran beach. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.

I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”

And yet …. the official policy of the U.S. is to treat mothers at the border (many of whom are Honduran and all of whom are trying to protect their children) as though they are criminals. We rip their children from their arms and lock them up in dehumanizing, traumatic conditions. We violate international human rights laws and — more fundamentally — God’s laws.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)

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Children and adults in the Finca community walk the Stations of the Cross, honoring the sacrifice of Jesus, during Lent. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.

So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.

And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:

“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.”
(Matthew 5:3-6)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.

A sacred reminder

I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.

But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.

I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Frank Eichenberg
“Christ of the Breadlines” by Frank Eichenberg

Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye Houseworked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action.  Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path.  We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.

The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”  

At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.

Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?  

First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.  

While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.

Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.  

Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”

The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.

 

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Twins opener blockade action (courtesy of Joe Kruse)

Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”

 

About the Rabbler Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

Clothing bales and hurting more than we help

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.

Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.

Photo Credit: http://www.fashioneditoratlarge.com/2014/07/five-thoughts-secret-life-clothes-obroni-wawu/

During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.

I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”

Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.

I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)

Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people.  Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.

Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.

As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.

Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.

Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.

As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.

We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31

““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.

And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”

Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.

Power, politics and Pope Francis

It’s St. Francis day and we have a Pope Francis!

St. Francis, Pope Francis

Thanks be to God, Pope Francis is really using his time in leadership to make big changes and redefine roles.  Basically Pope Francis is doing a great job of honoring his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.  This is really good news for Franciscans like me who take seriously what Christ said to St. Francis: “rebuild my Church.”

Pope Francis keeps emphasizing that Gospel living is messy.  (Some people have asked me if he reads this blog! Ha!)

Eight-hundred yeas ago, the life of St. Francis was a testament that Church re-building is messy activity.  Truly, discipleship is about conversion.  And, change tends to be chaotic, causing all sorts of commotion. Through Pope Francis’ leadership we are seeing how graced, Christ-guided changes can grab our hearts’ attention.

A quick study of the news exposes glaring information: democracy is failing. The government isn’t working and doesn’t have much power.  It’s not a surprise those things are breaking, they’re things of human invention.  Real people-power comes from God, not human-made institutions, systems or wealth and privilege.

Eight-hundred years ago St. Francis (and St. Clare) reformed religious life with insistence for freedom from having to own anything (called the privilege of poverty.)  Their radical reforms made big waves during their day because back then  monasteries were associated with wealth and might but they wanted to own nothing!  The radical insistence of St. Francis and St. Clare on the right stuff of Gospel living– poverty, humility, mutuality, joy, and prayerful peacemaking— rocked the Church with tension and reforms.

Today,  lessons about the privilege of poverty are being revealed in Pope Francis’ activities and what seems to be another insistence that the Church change and not be about power, privilege, wealth and might.  We’re wowed and the world keeps buzzing, a bit blown with wonder.  What would a Church be like that lives out the privilege of poverty?

St Francis got it– and now Pope Francis is showing us–  true transformations come from inclusive and peacemaking communities who are united and prayerfully protecting the privilege of poverty.  Good Gospel freedom comes from humility and not having.

Then and now, the plates of privilege and poverty are colliding. Paradigms of power structures are shifting. Coming up from the cracks, we see new creations.

We find ourselves in strange peaks and valleys and realize God is calling us forward. It’s time for us to let God show us how to remake our institutions and expectations, right with our habits and social systems.

A new type of people-power is happening. Something awesome and Christ-centered is coming!  Let’s party and celebrate as we move into new ways of being.

Happy St. Francis Day!!