The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.
It’s a stripping.
And, a great modeling of love.
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”
~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).
At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.
The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.
Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.
So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.
In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”
You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.
If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).
Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.
Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.
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.
This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.
During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.
Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.
One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.
All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.
We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.
I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.
But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.
I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.
Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” (see lessons #1, #2, #3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.
More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.
My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.
My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.
But they have no interest in doing so.
They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.
Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith? But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.
The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.
The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.
When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.” But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.
It has certainly changed me.
For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.
Editor’s note: This is the third blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (learn from lessons #1 and #2). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next two installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Electricity can be elusive in Uganda.
The country’s power grid is both incomplete and unreliable. When I lived there in 2006, access to power shifted from region-to-region in a process called “load-shedding.” This means those lucky enough to be connected to the grid only had power about 50 percent of the time—a reality that was at best a nuisance but could be downright life-threatening (as people living with HIV couldn’t refrigerate their antiretroviral medication).
My host dad’s computer work was repeatedly disrupted by power outages (scheduled and unscheduled), which made for slow and frustrating progress. Once, after yet another unexpected outage, he confided in me that he dreamed of installing a solar panel on top of his house. (Solar energy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Africans who wish to shed their dependence upon an inherently undependable source: the government-supplied power grid.)
My host dad had researched the costs associated with obtaining a solar panel for his home, and it was within his grasp … Or, at least, it could have been. “But,” he told me, without an ounce of regret, “Not all of my siblings have made it through secondary school yet, so I must put their need for education ahead of my desire for electricity.”
I was floored.
I understood that Jesus expects us to give from our substance and not our abundance, but I had never before stopped to consider just how many things in my privileged life I considered to be substance which were, in reality, abundance. Things like electricity.
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
How is Jesus calling me to live out His radical generosity?
I know there is no single “right” answer to this question … But, having witnessed poverty so abject as to be dehumanizing, right alongside generosity so self-sacrificing as to be miraculous, I also know that I can never, never stop asking it.
For reflection: What “necessities” could I give up in order to better live out Jesus’ call to radical generosity, especially in the face of so many unmet needs across the world?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She is happy to report that her host family now has a solar panel for their house, so that they rarely have to rely on government-supplied power.
Lent: we’ve been into it for over a week now. We are in this spiritual wilderness desiring to be better people, hoping to change. All sorts of actions are getting us into spiritual-shape again: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Through each simple act, we confront our weaknesses and give up on trying to make it on our own. We recognize our need to depend on God.
Yes, here in this Lenten desert we are parched and challenged by the Truth: we must give in to God’s ways. God’s ways are communal. Living according to God’s ways will allow us to grow into the people we know God made us to be. God made us for interdependent relationships. God made us to put love into action.
In this Lenten wilderness, it shouldn’t take long for our penitential living to turn from classic navel-gazing into phenomenal social transformations. This life of faith is not about usalone. Christian living is not a me-and-God thing. Rather, we give, fast and pray to remember that this faith-life is about all of us together loving like God loves. Our sacrifices and disciplines are meant to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Jesus’ sacrifices certainly did just that.
This means I gave up sugar for Lent–not just because I want to get healthier but because I want the entire global sugar industry to become more just. Naturally then, if I am avoiding sugar during these 40 days, I must also pray and advocate for changes in the corrupt food system, for improvements in the lives of the workers on sugar plantations. This Lenten sacrifice is not just about me. It’s about loving my neighbor like Jesus taught me to.
In our culture, it can be challenging for our Lenten actions to not have self-centered motivations. When we’re comfortable and distant from the suffering of others, our focus can become too inward. When we feel the impact of sacrifice it can become difficult for us to remember the reason for the tradition of our Church: we give things up in order to help the poor. It takes a different type of intentionality to connect with the people who we love and want to help with our actions. Fortunately, there are several tools to help us connect to our global community. For the love of others, let’s utilize these resources because otherwise it can be hard to believe that our actions make a real systemic difference.
Thank God, Scripture assures us that God is with us in this relational struggle even when the doubts are intense or the sacrifice is too hard. God strengthens us and revives us while we fast for the good of others:
I am excited to celebrate life; Lent is here and it’s such a good time. I am totally pumped to grow and learn. A little while ago, while working in our “Loving God” unit, my students and I discussed how sacrifice is an essential element of Christian living. Personally, I am ready to give up and give the filth of my sin over to God. Like suffering, sacrifice is sacred, and unites me with God’s mystery. I love it, and I want to live it.
Today, I’m rolling around in the filth of my sin and hoping for a great ashen renewal. It could be disgusting, but it’s exciting. The excitement of today, Ash Wednesday, is sort of like a pep rally that gets a team ready for victory. It’s kind of like a surprise birthday party, or a rock festival. It’s all of those things, and more. Our prayer and our repentance shall magnify the meaning of the metaphors in our living.
I have been looking forward to this season and the promise of ashes smeared on our faces. Perhaps I needed an excuse to refocus. Maybe I needed a reason to recover. Certainly, I need to turn away from my broken, ugly ways that distract me from relating to God and God’s children. This gospel living stuff is so messy. I so often feel like I am flailing around, hitting myself and others. Now I pause, allow the bruises to heal, and regain my coordination.
Plus, this time is very exciting because it’s time to get reconnected with my brothers and sisters who are also broken. We are all broken and it’s in a holy sort of way. Because of our brokenness we desperately need each other. As we relate, we unite. I try to remain aware about the part I play in the suffering – and healing – of others all the time, but it seems to me that others are more open to hearing about all the injustice of poverty when they are facing their own brokenness. So, I am glad that Lent provides the opportunity for us all to deepen our global awareness.
If we’re going to spend 40 days in a desert, we won’t survive with nothing! Fortunately, as we journey through the sacred season, we have all sorts of tools to assist us. Catholic Relief Services offers great opportunities for daily prayer, fasting and alms-giving that help us live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in economically impoverished countries. Busted Halo amuses me with a daily Lenten calendar that could win you a free Ipad. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers a variety of background information, plus opportunities for prayer and service. Obviously my tools are very Catholic. That’s part of being a nun.
As you enter into the season, I invite you consider the same questions that my students were asked to respond to in class today:
What are you giving up for Lent?
What are you doing to grow closer to God this Lent?
Lent is a season of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. How do these actions create good Christian moral living?
God bless you, and all your Lenten renewing!! Peace!