Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

light-shining-woman-on-bed
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

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.

Lessons learned from my students

A few weeks ago I saw my first “Back to School” flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.

This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no “back to school” for me.

To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"Stones in Trout Lake" near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Stones in Trout Lake” near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Imperfect follower

If you’re anything like most humans, even if you’re talented at something and called to do it for the good of the world, you were unlikely immediately amazing at it.

This is true for our faith life too. Following Jesus is, in a way, like a craft.  And this video reflection reminded me of that:

As far as discipleship goes, I am so far from being an expert. I am even further from mastery and perfection.

That’s why many of us who are religious speak about our prayer “practice” or ministry “practice” and so on. We realize we won’t start off with an expert status, and even a lifetime of this work will not perfect us.  We have to persevere and remember that we really are a work in progress.

I am just finishing an online class about the theology and practice of ministry.  The class has helped me feel assured that I am OK at the ministry of teaching after all. What makes me OK at it, apparently, is that I am open to learning and growing, can communicate well, and  am somewhat knowledgeable.  According to this book that we read in the class, those are the main charisms (gifts from the Holy Spirit) needed for teaching. This gives me hope!

I used to feel really insecure about how I lived my faith and how I ministered. I often felt like I would fall short, and I still frequently do. I know that I could always do better.

Recently my students were working on their contributions to the city-wide Compassion Project.  During our discussion about the components of compassion, I was reminded of something I need to keep in mind: I must be patient with myself as well as with others. We really do learn as we go, don’t we? This is one of the reason forgiveness is such an important part of our Christian life. Certainly our main motive guides us: we want to love as God loves. 

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6

Yes, I am learning. I think I get it now. I must be patient with myself and keep persevering. For I am in God hands. Evidently,  in order to becoming the loving woman who God made me to be,  it will take a while and this is quite OK. I just hope I can remember this most of the time. Even if I forget, the good news is that with God I’ll have some more chances to try again! 

Whew. What a relief! 

Photo credit: http://weltenmusterung.tumblr.com/)

the power of paradox

Our world is a mess and in need of redemption.  Christ is coming to save us.  Yet, Christ the Light has already come to save us and we are redeemed now. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet.  There’s a power in the paradox that teaches us how to hold out hope.

Yesterday I was attempting to explain the spirituality of paradox to my advanced sophomores as we lit the third candle on our classroom Advent wreathe.  Since we are all about Gaudete this week, things shift a bit. I told the students that we continue to prepare for the coming of Light into the world, yet rejoice over the fact that Christ is with us now.  How can two things that seem contradictory both fit together so well?  With God it works this way, since with God all things are possible.

To help my students grapple with the power of paradox, I found myself on a tangent about light years.  We calculated the actual distance of a light year and became overwhelmed with our smallness.  It is possible, I told them, to see starlight from a star that is actually already dead right now.  How is that possible?  Science and spiritual paradox tell us a lot about the Truth of God’s Light.

It’s advent, the hope season. Good news and good actions help us gain hope in humanity and the coming of Christ.  Even though it’s not yet Christmas, we can celebrate how Light keeps glowing despite death and darkness.

True, there’s a litany of injustice, oppression, sin and suffering that is wider than the world we know.  We know wars are raging and Earth is crying and people are dying. Economic inequality is ridiculous. (Did you know that if you earn more than $34,000 a year you are the global 1%!?)  It doesn’t take much for us to be overwhelmed and want to give up and just face the doom.  We’re responsible for making a difference, but how can we?  It’s a big job to be good like God made us.

Fortunately, with God, all things are possible.  We know that the rich and powerful nations and individuals have a big influence.  Globally and economically speaking, the ways that we consume creates systems and structures that influence lives elsewhere. All we do matters and has power to share hope.  These days, people know that there are problems, they’re talking about the problems and structures are improving.  Our world is changing and things are getting better, because God is already here.  We can celebrate the Light of increased awareness and converted conversations which permit joyous transformation and systemic change.

To really believe–to really have hope– we sometimes need to hear a story.  Have you heard of how the Dodd-Frank act has influenced people in Congo?  It’s wild and wonderful.  The major Wall Street reforms that became law in the summer of 2010 had a tiny stipulation that said that the minerals in the electronics of Americans can no longer be mined in a conflict. In other words, the minerals used to manufacture our cell phones and laptops now have to be certified conflict-free.  A story on The World impressed me.  Evidently this new American law is challenging the government in Congo to become more just about their labor practices so that they can again trade their mined minerals with manufacturers in the U.S.A.  Fewer children are being forced to work in the mines at gun-point because some good social awareness influenced trade practices and ultimately shifted an economic paradigm.  It’s a great response to the discouraged questions of “can I really make a difference? Can we really have hope?”

Yes you CAN make a difference and you do!  You are part of a global community.  You are a child of God, you are the Light of the world.  God is with you, using you as an instrument in your ordinary acts of life.  We are instruments of Word and action.  In word, we tell good news. I am sure you know your own stories about the goodness of God at work in us now. Good news holds hope out to the despairing.  Get ready for Christmas: tell the good news, let light shine on the hopeful happenings in humanity.  In action, you can be the good news and therefore a beacon of hope.  Make Advent choices that empower others. Thoughtfully give gifts, serve, create, or be generous.   As you hold out hope to others through word and deed, you truly help prepare the way of the Lord!

Christ who is coming and Christ who is here now is the Light. Bright beams glow through the darkness.  With this Light all things are possible, even glory out of our sinful lives.  Gaudete!

 

turning laments into love

It’s a lamenting sort of day.

I’m a modern Franciscan sister and live in a way that keeps me pretty tapped into the problems of the world. This morning was not unlike other mornings. I woke up, made coffee, said some prayers and then checked the weather on my laptop.

When I opened my laptop this morning, though, my email inbox appeared and it was jammed with news.  I learned that  Troy Davis had been executed over night. I had an email from one of my Catholic Worker friends about a shooting in Kansas City. Then, I had the usual emails asking for my assistance with campaigns for environmental, agricultural, immigration and economic justice from a variety of activist groups.

As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry.  Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond.  The challenge is to respond with love.

On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament.  I begged God for mercy.  I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed.  As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.

Soon after, I am with my students.  I decide to be real with them. “I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets,” I tell them. “I am trying not to take my anger out on you.  Let’s try to have mercy on one another and be open to God’s goodness.”  They nod in agreement.

In my classroom, we grapple with the theology of love. I am taught by my students through their encouragement and kindness.

I try to teach them something too.  I play this little video for them and we marvel at how great the world would be if humanity really lived out the basics of our faith, if we really lived with love:

Help us God! Amen!

stories that shoot the truth

Last week there was a shooting at the Walgreen’s near the school where I work.  I couldn’t find stories about it online and it didn’t make the evening news. It probably will never make the news at all because the victim, a teenage boy, survived.

I found out about the shooting because it happened after school and one of my students went to the store to buy a poster board to make a project I had assigned.  “Sister, there was a shooting in the Walgreen’s before I got there. I saw the boy go off on the stretcher. He’s okay, his eyes were open, he just looked scared.”

I listened and was amazed. I was very upset, as I am every time my students tell such stories.  Every time I learn the truth about the violence my students live with I am stunned, speechless, scared and angry. I cry with sorrow and pain when I get home from work.  I am shot down by the stories; I am disarmed and powerless.

I know most of my students know someone who has been shot.  Many of them know someone who has been killed. Several of them know someone who is in jail.  When I learn the truth, I want to share it. I really want to survey all the students and uncover the statistics so I could publicize them to the entire world and compel others to care and pray and work for change.

A while ago I asked a group of my students how they felt about my survey idea.  I said I wanted to tell the world about what they have to live through.  I was surprised with their response.  They were very unenthused by the idea, not because it was unimportant to them or insulting, but because they didn’t think that it would change anything.

“Sister,” I heard, “if you really want people to know about the violence we live with, then gather a group of us and let us tell our stories.”

Of course!  Duh me!  I know that stories are more important than statistics.  I know compassion is developed through relationships.  I believe that Jesus modeled how to listen and to teach through storytelling.  When we serve and love we need to know the people we are concerned about.  This is ancient history:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.God is with you statue
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”Lv 19:1-2, 17-18

And then of course Jesus inspires us:

““You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”    –Mt 5:43-46

We can’t love our enemies unless we really know who they are.  Once we really know someone and have heard what they have lived through — no matter what they have done — it is hard not to love.  God’s designs are perfect.  If we heed the words and the ways, the world will surely be changed. The kingdom of God will come.

In my classroom we discuss the challenge of loving our enemies, like Jesus and the Bible teach us.  The students understand the theories of non-violence very well, much better than I did at their age.  As they walk through real battlefields between school and home, their youthful ideals are challenged.

Yet, I know storytelling changes things.  My senior Peace and Justice students have been examining the influence and the power of non-violence by watching a documentary that tells stories, not statistics.  Through media, we are meeting people around the world who have really changed the oppressive systems by loving their enemies.   The film is appropriately called A Force More Powerful.

I admire my students very much.  Their hearts have been broken, yet they believe in the power of love.  I asked the students to tell  me why non-violence is called a force more powerful.  Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Non-violence makes the people who are hitting them feel bad because they are not being hit back.”

“Non-violence is more powerful than any other method of difference-making because it requires the most discipline, endurance and mental strength.”

“Non-violence is a force more powerful because it is showing ultimate love and resistance towards evil and violence.”

“Non-violence is more powerful because it makes people look at the opposed as if they are wrong when they become violent.”

“Why is non-violence a force more powerful? Because it makes a social revolution in the lives of everyone through reason and dignity.  Violence cannot do this.”

I teach non-violence in the middle of a war-zone.  Our entire globe is at war too, fighting for rights and freedom.  The cries for democracy in the middle-east and protests at state capitols cause us to wonder how peace and justice can truly emerge.Peace sign

What will it take for our rage to transform into love?  Parker Palmer, modern-day prophet, says that it is storytelling.  I agree.  When the real truth shoots us down, we have to reach to the other to rise up into change.