Don’t blink

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”

I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.

I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.

Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.

Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.

And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.



She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.

Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.

Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.

In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.

And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.

“You are stronger than you feel you are now.”

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven 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, adorable daughter and 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.

beauty with ugly: our real Advent stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what the prophet said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

love in the dark

The actions of Lent lead me through valleys of reflection.  As I serve and share I keep thinking and praying.

I’ve been wondering: What does love look like in the dark? What is it really like to trust God when things are hard? Why must we go through uncomfortable repentance and detachment to really be ready to know free Easter joy?

God’s ways are so good. I shall keep choosing them even though I don’t understand.

oh, God

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

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

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

loving to death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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