Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.
Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.
I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.
Yet I started to have questions, questions that became… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
I have never been to Charlottesville. In fact, I have barely spent anytime in the American South.
Like most people, though, I am horrified and sickened by the ugliness of racism that has been expressed there recently, especially last weekend. I want to know what to do, how to help and am trying to discern what sort of reaction I can muster.
Today I’ve been mourning the death and praying with the family of Heather Heyer, the counter-protestor who was hit by a car driven by a white supremacist on Saturday. I have been feeling heartsick for the friends and family of the police officers who died in the helicopter crash, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, too. I went to a somber candlelight vigil with another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration on Monday night to pray for peace, healing and to mourn the the lives lost last weekend. I am trying to study the truth carefully, prayerfully. I know I have a lot to learn.
I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening in the United States of America. I don’t know how to pray or move forward in the mess. I am not sure where God needs me to focus my energy and prayers to help transform society, contribute to the healing of racial wounds and stand for truth and justice. I feel lost.
I have been compelled this week, therefore, to pray with some of the voices I know from Charlottesville.
First, I re-read this poignant essay from my friend Natasha Oladokun, “Why Are We Here if Not for Each Other?” before I got ready for Sunday Mass. I highly recommend that you read and pray with this essay, too, and allow yourself to consider the hard questions. Here’s an excerpt:
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, said Jesus — the champion of the marginalized and poor, the so-called religious radical who was executed by the state, the God to whom I’ve offered my life. It is an injunction that rarely makes earthly sense, especially now: how can I bless when I have nothing left to say? And what should I pray for? A plague of locusts?
In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet Claudia Rankine asks, “Why are we here if not for each other?” This is the question I keep asking myself and whomever else will listen. Perhaps, in its own way, it’s the question. If our lives and work and words are not in the service of transformative devotion to and for our neighbors, then what, in heaven or hell, are we doing?
Secondly, I have been challenged and grateful for this message from another friend who calls Charlottesville her home, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. I have read this over and over, and am trying to take the challenge to heart:
My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,
I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff-arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday. We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it. I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.
But they are us.
I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.
I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior. I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.
I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at email@example.com, and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.
So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too. I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW. But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person. If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.
We need to have our hearts broken.
But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.” So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.
And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want. I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.
But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.
Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.
And we must change. WE, the white people of America, must change.
With all my love for all of us,
These two essays have been churning questions and agony within me, haunting me. Over and over I wonder: Am I racist too?
The insistence of this moment is that we all realize that our actions for racial reconciliation must be both internal and external. Internally, each of us must enter into the chasm of our hearts and minds and ask ourselves the most necessary and challenging questions such as: How am I racist?
I majored in history in college. Doing so helped me understand that all of the “isms” are complex, systemic and sinful. Racism, especially, is one of the worst “isms” that we need to confront, especially in ourselves, as it can be subtle and unconscious, and likely to come out sideways in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
That’s the way social sin works. Even if we are working against it, we still absorb some of the evil. We all are harmed. We must repent.
This tool is especially helpful to me as I work to see more of the truth of how I may be racist without realizing it:
Externally, we must work for racial reconciliation in every possible way. Prayer, education, protest, social action are great ways to start. (You can look here to see if there is #StandWithCharlottesville event happening near you.) Intentional conversation circles and dialogues are valuable. Also, the Episcopalian Bishops of Virginia offer great specific actions here in their list titled “Concrete actions in the face of white supremacists and others whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.”
No matter how we proceed through this mess, let us remember that every person is worthy of God’s love and mercy. Let us not clump anyone into a group that we are against, but realize that even if they are acting in a way that goes against God, that they are also a child of God and need to be honored and loved as such. Let us be clear that Christ’s love is for all people, every race, language and nation.
And, fortunately, God gets to take the lead through this struggle; it’s not all up to us. Step by step we struggle forward, letting Jesus take the lead and bring us closer to true peace, reconciliation, healing and freedom. Amen.
For the past three months, I have been happily preparing for the party of my life. This party will include a beautiful Mass, a locally-sourced dinner and a lively reception. The party of my life will celebrate my perpetual profession of vows with my community.
Preparation for my final vows has been busy and enjoyable. But, not everything has been simple and easy. Initially, I was really challenged by the task of balancing community traditions, my own personal hopes and the needs of my guests. Not everything has gone perfectly. I have had to re-learn lessons about flexibility and detachment. I have had to deal with disappointments and then adapt. Most recently, I learned that my friend who planned to offer the reflection during the Mass could no longer come. To this news, my incorporation director responded, “Even the prep for vows is its own formative experience!”
As I prepare for my final vows, I notice that there are certain questions that come up again and again, for me and the people around me.
Like a wedding, but not a wedding
“How are the final vow preparations coming along?” This is the most common and conversational question I have heard from all sorts of people: friends, family and other sisters in my community.
Doubts invade my prayer and distract me from the whole point of the story— of the entire core of my faith. Questions multiply in my mind exponentially. Why did some people recognize Jesus while others didn’t? Why is the Easter story so different in each Gospel? How did it really happen? Did it even happen at all? What if the whole “resurrection thing” is just metaphor? What if Jesus didn’t really come back in his body, but people just explained it that way because they had trouble understanding what they were feeling after Jesus was killed?
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?”
I guess I’m a lot like Jesus’ friends who had trouble believing their eyes, who remained cynical even when God himself spoke directly to them. Forget “you gotta see it to believe it” or “you had to be there,” sometimes we don’t even believe the goodness that is right in front of our faces.
“Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”
Maybe I have Easter questions because I am feeling desperate for a big, dramatic miracle. I want some happy headlines that restore all my faith that goodness is the strongest force. Terrorists repent and destroy all weapons. Cancer cure available for free to all in need. Malnourished children restored to perfect health. Billionaires give everything to the poor. Gun shops go out of business.
Apparently I have high expectations and big dreams. Maybe the truth is that I wouldn’t even recognize a miracle if it happened right in front of my face. Perhaps I need someone to show me what’s real and how God’s masterpieces surround me.
And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
Yes! God’s beauty is all around me, all the time, in the ordinary things. I don’t have to look too far to find something beautiful. I can easily experience wonder and awe for the goodness of God’s creation. My students are listening and working hard. Buds are opening and flowers are blooming. The food pantry is well stocked. The sun is shining and the sky is a beautiful blue. Life is good!
… they were … incredulous for joy and were amazed …
So much goodness is happening around me, but, how am I part of this? Jesus is God, so above me, so beyond me. I am small. I am nothing. I am just a person with very human needs and wants.
… he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.
And he is human too! He shows up, announces “Peace,” and then asks his friends for a snack! This is the Resurrected Jesus I can get behind, that I can believe in–the teacher who pauses in the profound, steps into the ordinary, and asks his pals for some food. Not only is he alive and human, but he’s a beggar too!
Now I know–or at least I am starting to get it: Easter is actually an ordinary thing.
Even though the first Easter Sunday changed everything, the Truth that must inform my daily living is the part of the story where Jesus models how to be fully human. Easter may not end all human suffering, but it should change how we are with each other. Easter is a human thing, a holy and profound moment that is just as basic as showing up uninvited and asking for a snack!
If you were to ask the Sisters I live with what my favorite TV show is, they would probably say Chopped.
It’s true. I really am very passionate the show Chopped.
If you’ve never watched, here’s the premise. Each episode is a competition between four chefs. There are three rounds: appetizer (in 20 minutes), main course and dessert (in 30 minutes each). One person is eliminated each round, depending on the evaluations of the panel of three judges in the categories of taste, presentation and creativity. Besides the challenging time limits of each round, the other thing that makes the show really interesting is the major catch: for each round of cooking, the chefs are given a basket of four mystery ingredients that they must somehow incorporate into their dishes. Squid ink, day-old french fries, stale waffles, ghost peppers, pig snout — the basket almost always contains something bizarre or seemingly impossible. I become amazed with what the chefs manage to create so quickly.
It’s great television, the sort of stuff our culture just eats up (at least now). Chopped can be dramatic, creative and even informative. I learn a little every time I watch. Sure, it’s reality TV full of all types of personalities and competition. But at its basic core, it’s a cooking show that teaches me how to be a better cook.
On any ordinary day, my mind can easily wander into a Chopped daydream. I wonder if I’d be calm or frantic if I were in a timed cooking competition. I daydream about new foods and cooking techniques that I learned on the show. I look forward to my weekly cook night because then I can I can try out a Chopped inspired idea that I am excited about, or simply challenge myself to prepare a tasty, creative and beautiful meal for the Sisters in limited time.
Even though I daydream about it, thoroughly enjoy it and am inspired by it, I actually hesitate to say that Chopped is my favorite TV show. This is due, in part, to my social awareness and my desires for Gospel-centered social justice. I have some serious questions about the show. My Chopped daydreams have also found me wondering: How much food gets thrown away in a taping of an episode? How much fuel was used to get the food and the people to the studio in New York? How were the animals treated before they became food? Who were the farmers that grew the vegetables and what are their farming practices? What are the working conditions in the food factories? How has earth been impacted by Chopped? Who can actually afford to buy the fanciest basket ingredients contestants get to use? Who eats all the extra food in the kitchen’s fridge and pantry?
Despite my numerous questions and concerns, I am not going to be boycotting Chopped. I don’t think it would do any good for me to do so. Plus, I actually have found that watching the show has helped me remain mindful of some of my religious convictions.
Make do with what you have: Even with all its extravagant ingredients, Chopped inspires me to live simply. My best Chopped inspired meals were made because I took stock of what was in the kitchen and then challenged myself to make something delicious out of what we had (I remain very proud of the kale, bacon and pine nut tacos I once made!). Really, the lesson of trying to make the best with what I have applies to much of my life, not just cooking. I don’t need any more stuff in my closet or collections. I know God provides for all my needs every day and I shouldn’t worry. Even in my time management, I don’t need to be stressed about all my tasks, I just need to say “yes” to one thing at a time.
Every moment is holy: Speaking of time, on one particularly memorable episode a Zen Buddhist chef amazed me. While her competitors were frazzled and stressed by the limited time, she remained calm and peaceful. She even seemed to be working slowly, as if savoring each second’s holiness. Amazingly, she was able to get her cooking done with seconds to spare and still create beautiful and tasty food. Watching her felt like a bit of a meditation for me. Every moment God has made is holy and God is in all things — even the Chopped kitchen.
Food is sacred: I believe the reason shows like Chopped are popular and that there is such an increase of foodies, food critics, and restaurant dining in our culture is because it all strikes a chord with something very innate about our human nature. Food is how we connect as community, it is how we connect to our mother after our birth. Jesus taught us the Truth of compassion, inclusivity, peacemaking and forgiveness over meals and through stories about eating. The summit of our Christian life is also food: the sacrament of the Eucharist connects us to God and to each other as one holy body.
I challenge you to watch Chopped, face your own faith in food and create to your spirit’s desire. Happy cooking and Christian living!
During prayer this morning, I tried to count up all the major changes that have happened or are happening in my life lately. I totally lost count.
The school year ended just four days ago. My youngest sister got married about a week and a half ago. Now, I am in the middle of packing for seven weeks out-of-town, for graduate studies and then an exciting pilgrimage. When I come back to town in early August, I’ll be moving. With the same sisters, down the street, and into another community property, but still–I’m moving.
Transition can be a testy, disorienting time for me. Sometimes my prayer gets tainted by talking to God about the tasks on my ever-evolving to-do list.
When I realize how my busyness is impacting my relationship with God, a strange shame can start to color my thoughts. I find myself thinking hard questions: Am I being too self-centered? Have I made my blessings into burdens? How is God calling me to Love right now? Why do I keep messing up?
The questions, doubts, shame, self-criticism, to-do lists quickly get tangled together in a big mess of awkward prayer.
Truly, God’s mercy and love is abundant. And, God wants me to remain open to love. I know this stuff, but I don’t always remember it. I am not always rooted in it.
God tends to figure out a way to get through my thick thoughts and calm me down with holy reminders. In fact, that just happened.
In my sorting, I came across a poem I wrote about a month ago, when the transition into Spring was vibrant around here. I forgot all about the poem but now it offers words that I want to dwell in and remember, as I keep moving.
I can’t wait for the days of my future fame – when some high-strung reporter asks me “how did you do it? How did you know?” Because at this point in my life, I plan on being at least 60, not caring much for social graces anymore, and I will totally respond in some graceless method laced with mild profanity: “Pfft. I’ve no idea.”
I have dreams of grandeur still, despite my chosen professional track. And though my adult self completely realizes great money and fame will never be in my cards (and really, that’s okay), it seems my inner child still expects a ridiculous amount of awe.
Yet, it’s hard to feel worthy of praise when the “success” of work is completely not because of you. In fact, it’s even better when you’re clueless, in a way. I’m not advocating that every professional dumps their hard-earned knowledge or skills. I just happen to be in the very unique position of quasi-counseling.
I don’t medically counsel people; that would be dangerous for both concerned. My style is more to provide a simple, subtle, optional direction for life. No pressure or anything; just someone’s happiness at stake. And routinely, my answer to people who ask how I do what I do is a blank stare with a feeble “I’ve no idea.” Which terrifies them, I think, and a little me, too.
And then add to that mix your own poor, personal decisions blowing up in your face. Well, it just doesn’t add a whole lot of confidence, you know? “Here, let me guide you in major life choices as my own life currently disintegrates behind me because clearly… I know what I’m doing.”
(And then God’s like, “Get your ego out of this, I will take care of it!”)
And suddenly I realize that it’s not about me. In reality, people kind of like it when you screw up but yet retain some semblance of sanity and pull it back together. They need to know that you don’t know what’s best so they can figure it out on their own. And honestly, if I knew all the answers, if I knew how it was done, if I knew the master plan and what you were destined to be, well, that would just ruin God’s surprise, wouldn’t it?
Emily Dawson, a vocation director for the FSPA and a friend of Sister Julia, writes from La Crosse, Wis., where she and Sister Julia sometimes visit coffee establishments and movie theaters together. Enjoy more of her cheeky style: she writes over at http://mappingthemystery.wordpress.com.
A vivid memory has been speaking to me all summer: a sunny spring day, as the fourth period of the school day began, a few excited ninth-grade boys came to class eager to ask a question. Their energy was animated and slightly nervous (“You ask her.” “No you ask her!”) for I believe they knew, at a great depth, they were considering something powerful. Then the question came forth–maybe the greatest question I have ever been asked:
“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”
I was stunned. I said “WOW!” What else could I say?
I loved the idea of God needing us so much that he is practically dependent on us to help create the universe of his dreams; it is empowering to consider that God’s love can only be fully manifested if we say “yes.”
Participation and relationship is natural activity and genuine Gospel living, of course. Certainly, building the kingdom of God is work of service, prayer, community, activism, and solidarity. Good Christian activism, in particular, is a loving labor of creative problem solving so yes, I knew that God needed us and has hope for our lifelong to-do lists. Even so, this is what happened in my journal a few days later:
“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”
Yes, “What if!” What if God needs us so much to dream up new realities in order for them to exist?
It’s expansive stuff, really: the new realities we must imagine might be in an evolutionary metaphysical dimension, or they could be about coming up with new ways of being Church, sharing our abundance, and showing forth the Gospel goodness–ultimately revealing the solid strength of peace and justice. Christ totally has a way “of making all things new,” maybe even those things that we think are going just great.
It takes more than dreaming though. Gospel living is really about letting go and allowing God to work through us. When we let go we could end up in a place of awe, of just being free to step back and see how God wants to show up and be seen.
Amazing artists certainly seem to experience this.
Throughout the summer, I have been on a bit of a creative journey and have been learning a lot. Presently, I am very blessed to be here on a scholarship and have my first-ever experience of a writer’s workshop. I’m amazed as I listen in to other faith-filled artists disclose their process and experience. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe that I get to learn and be encouraged by some of the most brilliant creators I have ever met.
As I listen, I notice that each artist seems repeat a truth: it is necessary to submit to an energy outside of ourselves (God!). It may be called “letting the poem say what it wants” or “seeing what’s behind what you’re saying,” whatever it is, it’s an act of trust and trial. Basically, as we create, we must let go of judgement, be vulnerable, take wild risks and let God take us where we’d rather not go. It’s discipleship– following Jesus’ way of humility and self-emptying. Otherwise, we become journalists and not artists and end up recording what we see and not what God is trying to say.
God has a lot of truth to tell, has a lot of love to show off. Is this why God calls us and creativity compels us? What if God needs us, desperately, just as we need God for our basic existence?
“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”
Back in my classroom, after I said “WOW!” to the great question my students, in their 9th grade boy sort of way, then said, “I know, right Sister?! Like, what if since we can imagine a planet ruled by aliens and robots, then now God will make it?”
Ha! OK, well, that’s not really where I went with the question. Still, I just said “Wow!” with a wide smile. I felt relief that my response of wonder seemed to satisfy their young seeking souls.
How wonderful it is that youth are so great at speaking the truth without knowing it!
How wonderful God is for loving, trusting, and needing each of us, even if we don’t know it!
I love how I can be barefooted most of the time during the summer. I love this time of year. Walking around barefooted has an effect. I am grounded again. Grounded means that I get reconnected with God, myself, the earth, and people I love. While that happens, I am restored.
But, I am not able to settle. Nope, it doesn’t take long until little Gospel-living questions become exposed like insects. They land and tickle my skin, they buzz in my ears, sometimes they land in my mouth; bratty little bugs! I could swat them out if I wanted, I could ignore them, or run away. Naw, instead I am trying to let these questions have a life of their own.
Here they come, those wild creatures: can I live more simply? Can I be stripped of privilege? Am I really sharing the love of Christ? Is it obvious I am a Christian by the choices I make? What is God calling me to do today so that I grow? Am I happy? Is this the life I want to live? Am I living like Jesus?
I’m not sure. I am praying for guidance on all that stuff right now. I am also learning to befriend these questions. It might be a bit like playing with my Bug Bottle when I was a girl. I would capture creatures from the wild, put them into a container, observe their life and learn all I could. A lot of discovery can happen when we sit still and pay attention to things that squirm or bother.
There’s one little question that seems to stick out in the swarm: How can my attempts at Gospel living bring me closer to the types of people who Jesus was most scrutinized for hanging out with?
Again, I feel a bit stumped. But, this little video inspired me to remember I must cross lines, even poverty lines. It’s sort of like going on an adventure; heading off to explore the woods like a kid.
Wow, I wonder what I’ll get to see during these summer adventures! May God bless all of us in our deep exploring, Amen!