Strength in weakness

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  — 2 Corinthians 12:9

Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.  

Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.  

Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.  

Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.  

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Sister Shannon Fox, right, and her co-worker, Sister Kim, show strong support for their students “Because Their Dreams Matter.”

Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher.  I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.

“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.

“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”  

“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.  

“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”  

“It was hard for you?” he asked.  

“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.  

“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.

“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer.  It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.  

In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister Shannon Fox

sister-shannon-fox

Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

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“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Beyond lonely scrolling

photo credit: unsplash.com

Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.

Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …”  (Mark 8:1-3)

Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.

By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.

I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?

The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.

Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).

And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.

So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.

It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.

Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.

Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?

I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”

My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.

I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.

Breaking down the walls because ‘tú eras mi otra yo’

I once stood near the United States-Mexico border. In the journey to this edge, I witnessed the evidence of militarization: guns, checkpoints, armored vehicles, cameras. The steel fence rose from the sandy earth like a misplaced mountain. I felt my body tense from the feeling of surveillance. I felt the unease and sorrow that seemed to hover in the dry desert air.

This was a little over two years ago, when I visited Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Mexico as a participant in the 2016 Border Convergence. In the shadow of the giant steel fence, I prayed and protested along with other Catholic Sisters and members of Giving Voice.

With other Giving Voice Sisters at the SOAW Border Convergence, Oct. 2016, Nogales, Arizona. I am the fourth Catholic Sister from the left in the photo.

Since that time much has happened in my life, including earning a MA in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. At my graduation last May, I loved hearing this speech from one of the recipients of an honorary degree: Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas from El Paso, Texas, a pastor, educator, theologian, advocate for migrants and refugees and founder of the Tepeyac Institute.

In his speech, Msgr. Bañuelas centered his comments around the meaning of the Spanish phrase he learned from his grandmother: “tú eras mi otra yo” or “you are my other me.”  According to Bañuelas, when we see our humanity wrapped up in the being of others, we see how “walls between us threaten our sacred bounds” because “oneness with each other is oneness with God.”

As I understand it, a community of any type cannot know oneness if those who are poor and marginalized are not included, honored, respected. We come to know God and ourselves through the poor. In Bañuelas,’ words, “there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the poor. Through their eyes we see what Jesus sees, a life rich in beauty, value, and meaning.”

Since my graduation in May, Bañuelas,’ words have remained a steady challenge to me. I often ponder if my life is being converted more to the poor; if they are my center and path to knowing God more deeply. I think about during my visits to the county jail. I think about it during my drives around rural America. As a retreat minister, I often wonder how I’m going to help others know the sacredness of the other. I also consider the Christian call when I observe the divides in society, the collapse of connections over political aisles and the evidence that even the ecosystems are feeling the torment of conflict. How can we build more inclusive societies? How can we tend to the most vulnerable among us?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of a group of teens preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church. I read this aloud:

“In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” – Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exultanteparagraph #6)

In other words, not only is our humanity bound up in one other but our salvation is too. If we are divided and not caring for one another across borders and divides, none of us will be able to experience the fullness of God’s reign. We are a Church, a people, a community only as strong as the most marginal and weak among us. This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. This is the stuff of South African spirituality called Ubuntu, which means “I am who I am because of who we all are” and “I am a person because I belong.”  It’s “tú eras mi otra yo” put another way.

Visiting each side of the border two years ago with my peers, I encountered the sacredness of a community and the goodness of God’s creation. The heat of the sun and the desert life growing in abundance testified to the truth that God did not create borders. God created the beauty of humanity, the glories of nature. And humanity and nature is all communal, like God, the Trinity.

God’s has designed us for unity, communion, community; we cannot be made whole if knowing one another demands crossing through splits and divides, if we must conquer walls and fences in order to bond as neighbors.

Building unity demands tearing down the walls and advocating for justice. As Bañuelas says, “tú eras mi otra yo” means “Our hearts and our lives shrivel when remain silent about the silence of others.” And, “tú eras mi otra yo” … “is the lived courageous hope not afraid to take a stand for justice, knowing that each stand removes a brick from injustice until it all comes tumbling down … because love always wins.”

Now is the time to cross the canyons split into our civility. Breaking down the walls will strengthen our society. We need each other because we are human, because we are the people of God.

With the walls down, let us look into the face of the poor and come to see God — doing so means better knowing ourselves, because “tú eras mi otra yo.” And it means, wonderfully, that we will not be the same.

“There is an innate part of God in each of us that needs to be honored and respected always. When we listen with our hearts and share in solidarity with the sufferings, the struggles the hopes and dreams of the poor, our lives are shaped anew. Our theology and ministry formation finds its deepest meaning. Our passion for living explodes into shouts of joy and a new person, a new humanity is born. The poor show us that when we are together as one we are invincible in justice, peace, hope and reconciliation.”  – Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas  (Catholic Theological Union graduation, 2018.)

Changed hearts and lives, strengthened communities and Church, with the walls broken down there will be no more borders to visit or neighbors to fear. We are closer to God and encounter all people seeing clearly that “tú eras mi otra yo.”

Credit: SOA Watch

YOU ARE INVITED TO THE 2018 SOAW BORDER CONVERGENCE

The third mobilization at the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora Mexico is Nov. 16-18, 2018!

“Our move to the border responds to the present-day call to solidarity in Latin America. The mobilization at the border in Nogales is one more way to fight for the closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The third bi-national Encuentro at the militarized U.S./Mexico border aims to build the grassroots power necessary to challenge the racist statutes quo and push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

Details are here: http://www.soaw.org/border/

Reconfiguring my discipleship

Photo credit: by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.

The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”

From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

St. Joe and me

I have been praying to St. Joe, the earthly father of Jesus, a lot lately.

I call him St. Joe instead of St. Joseph because shortening his name makes him more real to me, like a friend. When I pray to saints it is helpful for me to behave like we are in relationship; change occurs on a relational level.

I am a single, 27-year-old female who is not trying to sell a home or become a carpenter. Although I have little in common with St. Joe, we have been having a lot of chats.

I am a nanny by trade and the majority of my week is spent loving and taking care of other people’s children. I educate, wash the clothes and change the diapers of little ones.

St. Joe is my friend through all of this labor because, when it comes to loving the children of others, I am pretty sure there is no one better to model my heart after. I am often tired and drained in this work. The words I say seem to bounce right off the back of the energetic four-year old. Frustrated again and again, I turn to St. Joe:

“Please help me to love this child like you love Jesus.

Help me to not get caught up in the frustrations of the day-to-day.”

This simple prayer calms and encourages me to think more deeply about the dynamics of the Holy Family. I find myself wondering, just as I do about myself, if St. Joseph knew how difficult raising a child would be, if he ever doubted that what he was doing mattered and if the love he provided was enough.

While teaching children as a nanny, I am learning too. It shows me that loving people is messy and imperfect, that God gives us the saints to encourage us and to help us strive for holiness. They are given as gifts because God loves us so infinitely and provides examples of people just like us who have become saints. Similarly, as I explore and deepen my faith Jesus’ lessons on loving children, especially as a non-biological parent like St. Joe, inspire me.

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“I have had this Holy Family music box since I was two,” says Alicia, “I simply adore the way Mary and Joseph are looking at baby Jesus.” (Image courtesy Alicia Grumley)

And the more I talk to St. Joe about caring for children not our own, I realize we have even more in common. I am loved very deeply by a stepparent. As I look at the role St. Joseph plays in the life of Jesus and the role my own stepmom plays in mine, I realize that by taking on the responsibilities of loving another’s child we open our hearts to being conductors of the spiritual works of mercy. We embrace all seven of them: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.

I know that, throughout her marriage to my dad, my stepmom has and continues to do all of this for me and my brothers. I suspect that St. Joe would have also practiced these works of mercy with Jesus. I imagine that there were times when St. Joe prayed to be better at these things, just like I do.

So what do I, a single 27-year-old non-homeowner and non-carpenter have in common? Love. Lots and lots of love by the will of God, mercy. I know I need it, and I know I can grow by practicing it.

Thanks for the example, St. Joe.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.

 

Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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.]

Loyalty and memory in response to the signs

He said to them … “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’;and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” – Matthew 16:2-4

Much of the world we once knew is flipping onto its side. People in power are causing us to have questions about what we thought were foundational values, about where their loyalties lie. When our leaders disturb the order that we once relied on — that once made us comfortable — it’s only natural for us to feel lost, confused and uncertain about how to interpret the chipping and shifting road signs.

If we haven’t learned the codes and the languages, the meaning of the signs, we may feel as if we’re traveling through the fog. We grip our steering wheels a little tighter. We pull to the side and put on our flashers, trying to gain some sort of sense about whether we are going in the right direction, trying to determine which routes — and on and off ramps — are part of the Way of Christ.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com

As we travel, as we follow Jesus, folks reach out to us from every direction, in need of our compassion, care, and prayer. Their worlds are crumbling. In the rubble, they feel unsteady. They are challenged by change, by death, by the demand to transform and adjust — the call to conversion for which they were unprepared.

Our call is to listen to their cries, to hold them close in the way of our example, Jesus Christ. We hear their heartaches and their longings for solid ground. We encourage faithfulness to God’s love, to the demands of relating beyond break downs and upsets to the status quo. And we try to find our own solid footing, as we love over the divides and disturbances.

One way to stay grounded when the signs seem to point toward the land of letting go, to transformation and conversion, is checking our own memories and loyalties.

For myself recently, I’ve been invited to this through the sudden departure of a colleague, mentor and a holy man, Mr. Steven Murray, who I was honored to minister with at Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a few years ago. Earlier this month he died while mowing his lawn, leaving a giant gap in the hearts of many, as he served hundreds of people over the years as a compassionate educator. When I worked with Mr. Murray at the high school, he was the dean of students and we often would get into deep, faith-filled conversations about how to care for the teenager who doesn’t seem to care about school or others; we would grapple with the messy Jesus business of Gospel living together and always arrived at the same conclusion: we must imitate our brother Jesus, whose love was costly and full of second chances.

In my memories of Steve the signposts become clear. It is apparent where his loyalty was. It was clear what he wanted to most remember: the love of Christ. He would share this love of Christ in meaningful yet subtle ways, gently teaching how one’s dedication and devotion can inform one’s character and tone.

Loyalty is rootedness, devotion, connection. It is relational and grounded. It is based in memory of identity, in memory of fondness and hope, of memory of what values are foundational.

Influenced by loyalty and memory and built up by love, like Steve Murray, we can pay better attention to the signs surrounding us, we can gain direction and experience reflection. We can be grounded in love and truth.

Steve Murray published a song and a reflection online about his childhood friendship on the Mississippi River less than two weeks before he died. It seems, in this section, that he was paying attention to the sign of his mortality:

We had the utmost respect for the river and its power and even though we thought we were Tom and Huck, it did not take us away from our homes. We attended funerals but never our own. In those days it was not unusual to have the visitation in the front room of your house and the funeral procession would go from the church passed your house and then to the cemetery.

As we journey on this road of life with Christ, let us look around at all the people in our lives who are signs for us on how to love and live, to share and help others gain a sense of solid footing, even if their world is crumbling around them.

Like Steve Murray, let us be fed by the words of Jesus, as food for our journey to help us be awake and nourished enough to notice the signs.

For your prayer and nourishment, I offer this song “Words of Jesus” written and sung by Mr. Steven Murray. May it help you know the way. Amen!

On the brink and remaining steady: solid footing in rapid change

“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”  — “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)

Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.

We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.

Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.

Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.

As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge,  we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.

In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:

133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).

134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.

135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.

Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.

Photo courtesy of Charish Badzinski

As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.

Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here.  Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.

. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.

Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .

As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.

No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.

It’s not our job to change people

Years ago, when I was learning how to be a teacher, some of my motivations were quite idealistic: I want to change the hearts and minds of youth, and therefore change the world!!

Now, when I think back to the workings of my mind in those days, I almost want to scold my younger self, “get a grip!”

By no means were my motivations bad, but it was my ego that got me into trouble. Did I really think that I could change people? Of course I did–and I suppose most of us do, at some point in our lives. Maybe this thought is buzzing in the background of our interactions most of the time, without us realizing it. If so, we may feel like we’ve failed if we can’t convince others of our opinions, can’t get them to switch their views or can’t inspire them to join the cause about which we are super passionate.

When did this all change for me? When did I stop thinking I was supposed to change others? I suppose it started when I began to see myself more as a minister than a teacher, and when I began to understand that my role is to lovingly companion people and meet them wherever they are. I share God’s love, myself, my knowledge and experiences, but I hope to always provide the freedom for people to make up their own minds.

This stanza from “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” has helped me remember that saving others isn’t my job; Jesus already has that under control:

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own

 

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Photo credit: http://www.fggam.org/2013/03/devotional-for-resurrection-sunday-praise-god/

I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe. Do I just listen and let them speak, even if they are voicing something that is morally wrong–like a racist or classist idea?!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And, I have been grappling with these questions while in conversation with others. At a recent Theology on Tap event here, I sat around a table with about a dozen people eating pizza and burgers and having a deep and vulnerable conversation centered on the topic, “How to get along with people different than you.” We read an excerpt of a chapter of a book by Margaret Wheatley “Willing to be Disturbed,” which I highly recommend.

A few weeks prior, when I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended an excellent panel discussion called, “Writing about politics in an age of rancor.” Most of the panelists talked about the importance of listening, of practicing good interview skills. One speaker said that we’ve lost the art of persuasion in our culture. Everyone emphasized the importance of empathy.

Plus, I have been a bit fascinated by a radio program that I recently caught on my way to mass at the local parish. This part of the conversation, in particular, piqued my interest:

RAZ: You know, I find myself having, like, really serious conversations with friends about things we disagree on, and it can get pretty heated.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

RAZ: And I try to employ a lot of these rules. But what do you do when your core values are just totally misaligned with the person that you’re talking with – like, to such an extent that the things they believe just offend you to your core? Do you still engage?

HEADLEE: I do. And I can give you an example of this. So I am a mixed-race person. The last time my family lived in Georgia, we were owned. And I think most people would understand my feelings on the Confederate battle flag. But I have a number of friends that absolutely think that is about heritage, and it’s not about hate, et cetera, et cetera.

And I was having one of these discussions with someone earlier, and he started to say to me, well, I’m not going to talk about this with you because I know where you stand. And I said, you know what? That actually frees us up. Just tell me what you think because here’s the thing. Our views are opposed on this, but I am interested in your perspective, why this is so important to you. And if I can just start from the outset and allay those expectations that someone’s going to change my mind, sometimes it just sort of relieves that pressure. Then it just becomes about hearing someone’s perspective.

RAZ: So you wouldn’t respond to his argument. You would just listen to what he said.

HEADLEE: I might. I might, but I start by just listening and asking questions, but because he likes me and respects me, usually he leaves an opening for me to express my feelings, and I do honestly without condemnation. But, you know, it’s hard for people to open up like this. It’s hard. That makes you vulnerable.

Here is the entire TED Talk about how to have better conversations, about how to interview and listen:

As a Christian who is aiming every day to keep united with the power of the resurrected Christ, I am trying to keep all this in mind as I minister, listen and learn: listening and being vulnerable with others helps build community, and build relationships. When both parties are compassionately curious about one another, when our thoughts and beliefs can be clarified, then we can be in communion. We grow closer together when we share our wounds, when we create spaces of true hospitality where bread of all sorts can be broken and shared.

And somehow, along the way, by the grace of God, we all end up changed.