During my first visit to a foreign land there was an earthquake, but I was unaware of it until after the fact.
I was an exchange student, staying with a host family in Mexico City. Within the first few days that I was there adjusting to everything — change of language, culture, climate, lifestyle and landscape — the conversation at a family dinner turned to the event. I was asked if I had felt the tremors, if I had noticed the earth move. Only when prompted was I able to recall that I had felt something. Oh yeah, I admitted, but I assumed the ground was shaking from a jackhammer at the nearby construction site, I said. The earthquake was small, and nothing around me was familiar. I wasn’t surprised I that I didn’t notice the earthquake.
I’ve been in religious life for over 14 years now. It’s barely a scratch in the mystery of time. Compared to decades of love and service offered by my elders in community, who have lived vowed life for 50 or more years, I am a beginner. Yet, I am adjusted to the culture. I am familiar with the landscape. I am noticing the earthquakes.
On Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, I sat in front at my laptop in Chicago. Along with other members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I watched as our community president, Sr. Eileen McKenzie, stood at a podium in our dining room inside our motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and read an announcement. Familiar sisters were at dining room tables in the room with Sister Eileen, listening in, and several of us joined the meeting virtually. Through the window near me, heavy fog encircled the bare trees.
Through my headphones, I heard Sister Eileen tell us that our 141-year-old shared practice of round-the-clock adoration was about to drastically change… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Throughout the United States we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday next week.
Some of us will attend parades or prayer services to feed our souls with the words of good speakers and the sound of great music. Many will participate in the National Day of Service. Others will watch television specials or talk to children about the goodness of cultural diversity. Maybe we’ll eat soul food or listen to Gospel music. Or perhaps we’ll learn about the current landscapes of inequality and injustice and loudly say “Amen” at the end of every prayer for social change.
Yet, I imagine that many (most?) of us will likely let the day go by without much consideration of why Dr. King was martyred, why we’re honoring him. Some of us will savor the benefit of a three-day weekend by shopping, binge-watching and catching up on sleep.
I get it. Our lives are packed and we keep a busy pace. Laboring for the reign of God with all our might in our little corners of the world wears us out. It takes a lot from us to work to make peace and justice as common as air. We’re tired, we’re spent. We need rejuvenation to fight the good fight day in and day out.
Yes, we need rest and renewal. But I would like to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not the day. That’s what the weekly sabbath is for. (Remember that commandment God gave us?)
So, here’s what I propose. It’s what I plan to do. I will empower King’s legacy, enable it to change me this time around. I will carry it with me through 2020 with less inadequate activisim and more openness to conversion. And, I invite you to join me in my simple plan.
Step 1.) I will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings or speeches. This might be his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. If I can’t read the speech carefully and studiously, I’ll listen to it. And, if I don’t have the time or energy to read an entire speech, I will read previous Messy Jesus Business posts dedicated to his legacy or at least consider some of the following quotes on war and peace (included here):
More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. “Don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have the compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Strength to Love, 13 April 1960
I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968
Step 2.) I will imagine a society constructed on the principles that King proclaimed and notice where I am challenged and disturbed. (After all, if I want to change the world, I must start by changing myself!)
I will pray, journal and/or do a lot of thinking related to King’s vision, looking to see how I get in the way of peace and justice flourishing. Here’s some questions I might start with: How would the circumstances of 2020 look differently if we took the principles of nonviolence to heart? What role could I play to dismantle racism and inequality? How do I need to change my mind, heart and behaviors so that the life I am living demonstrates that I truly believe love is the strongest power? How is the Spirit inviting me to grow and change so that I help create a world where there is more peace and justice for people of every race, class and creed?
Step 3.) In response to my reflection, I will envision myself changing my behaviors and then make a plan.
Perhaps I could explore new groups to join (like I found on this website and this one too), find upcoming meetings or calls to action and offer my help. (I’ve attended many events over the years, but have rarely offered more than my participation.) Maybe I need to learn more about issues like gentrification or white privilege that currently plague the poor and marginalized. Maybe I’ll write the president or call my legislators. I’ll look at my calendar and give myself a deadline for a new action.
Whatever I do, I’ll pray about it. I’ll invite the Spirit to guide me, work through me and show me where I am being called. Because however I am called to change it will be a struggle. I need God’s help. We all do.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s a gray day, one of those types where the clouds hang heavy and seem to block out all sunlight. Inside a cozy lamp-lit room, I am sitting in a circle of ministers training to be spiritual directors and practicing the art of listening. Around the circle, person after person tells a story from their life that is personal.
With each telling, I notice layers of transformation and transition; I hear about the wonder of discovery and the lightness of hope. A phrase comes to mind: the goodness of gray. I jot the words into my notebook and open my heart wide. Although this happened weeks before Advent, “the goodness of gray” remained a constant suggestion, a companion in the season of searching, longing and waiting.
We are people who long for simplicity, who often ache for clearly defined borders and lines. Even though we may know that complexity and conversion is healthy and natural, we are comfortable with what’s predictable, what we know, what feels safe.
There may have been times when answers were easy, when we knew what to expect. For some it was the patterns of childhood, the days of easy answers and comfort zones. For others, we found solace in the rituals of our religion or what was considered proper and polite. Our memories might be hazy, but nostalgia convinces that there was a time when much stood strong on solid ground. Elected leaders compromised. Polarities were unusual. Religious life was defined. Democracy was functional. Unity and peace were valued and Churches were places of refuge and calm.
Now, we don’t know about much. Nearly everything we are familiar with — from the structures of Church and society, to technology and the ecosystems sustaining us — seems to be in transition, in flux. What we forget, though, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Jesus invites us into ongoing repentance that involves receiving a new vision of belonging. In the life of discipleship, we are constantly receiving new eyes to see the world around our neighbors and ourselves in deeper reality and truth.
The book “A Riff of Love” activates imagination for creative discipleship that gives witness to this perpetual conversion and participates in this deeper reality. Author Greg Jarrell invites readers into his neighborhood to explore the depths of what it means to be truly human and what it means to be in communion with God and other persons. Through its very form, this book invites the reader on an integrative journey. Jarrell constructs each chapter as a tapestry of interwoven threads of personal stories from his neighborhood, historical narratives of place and racial relationships, theological reflections, musical connections, and self-reflective insights.
These threads come together as one encounter for the reader — an encounter beckoning transformation. And this is the thrust of the book that comes through over and over: Jarrell has been changed and is being changed through the friendships and experiences of his life, and he is eager to invite others into that journey of transformation.
As I read this book, I listened to the music of the musicians mentioned in each chapter: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. These artists and the poignancy of their music have offered me new ways of seeing and have unearthed in me a connection with stories and people that otherwise felt more distant. As a saxophonist, Jarrell’s musical mind provides the reader with touchpoints for exploring new landscapes of truth.
The integration of music throughout “A Riff of Love” resonates with me as the husband of a gifted artist who is constantly ushering our community into new depths of worship through paintings, sketches, and prints. It is not as if the musical connections in this book are meant to be representations of an already-known, static truth. Rather, new dimensions of truth, lament, and beauty emerge through the encounter with art and melody.
I often wonder what faithful political engagement looks like for Christians in America today. Politics at their core, after all, are about cultivating a common life in such ways that make room for the flourishing of all. The side of political engagement that seems to make the most headlines involves the fight for policies and systems and elections that fashion a more just set of societal structures — one in which it is harder for systems of oppression to continue, where it is easier for those who are poor and on the margins to integrate into a common life marked by freedom and equity. Another vital side of political engagement (and one that I think is too often ignored, mislabeled, or even feared) involves our daily lives and habits of relationship, consumption, and neighborliness. The tiny, mundane aspects of our ordinary day-to-day life have implications for the common good.
God’s invitation to me and to my family includes imaginative discipleship of littleness, prayer, mutual care, and welcome through an intimate and intense shared life amongst persons living with and without disabilities. As this second form of political engagement, our little way is interconnected with the first (a politics towards establishing a more peaceable scaffolding of policies and laws that treat persons living with disabilities more justly and with humanity), and each is made more full in companionship with the other. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day preached about this connection and the Catholic Worker Movement is a witness to the beauty of refusing to separate personalism from the fight against what Dorothy calls “the filthy, rotten system.”
In this book, Jarrell demonstrates an understanding of politics that refuses to separate the justice of a way of life oriented around peculiar and personal friendships from the battle for new laws and policies that better reflect the reality of each person’s belonging in our common life.
None of the larger, systemic, historical issues that Jarrell explores throughout the book remain in an abstract or distant space. Rather, through pressing into the relationships in his own neighborhood and deep, attentive listening, he sees each in its proper context; sees a bit more clearly what’s going on both interpersonally and structurally.
This robust view of politics even includes attention to the interior life. I am compelled to believe that a life of justice and neighborly love offers vitality for the inner life and that deepening discoveries of one’s inward journey are connected with a life of mercy and justice. Jarrell understands this and is constantly welcoming the reader into his journey of self-reflection and attention to the movements of his own soul.
I appreciate the space to clarify some of these thoughts on Christian life and the common good through Jarrell’s writing and find myself wondering how he might engage some of the relevant variety of voices in Christian tradition: Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld.
As another white male called to an intentional way of conversion, care and friendship in a North Carolina neighborhood fraught with complexities related to a history of racism and displacement, much of “A Riff of Love” resonates with me. While Enderly Park in Charlotte has significant distinctions with our North Street Neighborhood in Durham, there is much overlap and many insights to glean from Jarrell’s discoveries. Mostly, this book challenged me to learn and to unlearn.
Through Jarrell’s witness, God is inviting me to learn more about the history of our place, the connection of this land on which I write with human movement, lending practices, segregation, urban planning, and displacement. I am also receiving an invitation to deepen the process of unlearning habits in my own life that mask or even prop up, the illusory stories that distort reality. I am reminded of the vital significance of historical remembrance and truth-telling.
I encourage everyone to read this book. Please. Read it with an openness to repent. Read it docile to the Spirit’s movement, perhaps shifting the ordering of your daily life in ways that more clearly reflect the good news of the Gospel for all creation.
May God give us the grace to slow down enough to heed Jarrell’s introductory exhortation: “… excavate your place and your soul.” Let it be, Lord.
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?
This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.
Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?
I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.
Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.
In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.
The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.
With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.
Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)
When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?
In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.
There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.
Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)
I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”
In the stretch of some days, we switched over from Resurrection joy and fiery feasts to ordinary time. (At least, according to the Church calendar that guides my contemplation.)
Holiness, light goodness, hope, love, transformation: all these energies are offered to us on this side of linear thinking and time. Yet, the God we know and love is bigger than the limits of our human understanding. This love invites us into a mystery that remakes us each moment, through each breath.
The Psalm (104) says: When you send forth your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the Earth.
The Spirit is being sent upon us constantly. Over and over we are created. Again and again, the face of the earth is renewed. The nature of the Spirit doing all of this is fire, wind and the flight of doves. It’s forceful, fierce, and moving. Not still and rarely subtle.
Yet, we are stalled by our lack of faith; by our fear of the Spirit’s fire and force, it seems.
Our faith in God’s power is corroded and corrupted by the world’s lies, by matters that are unGospel: security, strength and an obsession to protect our things. This is the trouble I encountered in a quick conversation with a man before worship on Sunday. As I aimed to prepare my heart for Pentecost Mass, I heard a suggestion that I ought to carry a weapon when I go to the margins of society, into the corners where street violence is a regular thing.
Such suggestions are due to the stalling to truly change our ways and steward the sacred gift of life and Earth we’ve been given — as named by the prophetic and powerful voice found in Greta Thunberg.
If we truly allowed the Spirit to change us — to create us — we would be burned by the fire, I believe. We would wear the scars of our transformation, just as the Risen Jesus and Body of Christ bears the scars of our salvation. Our flesh wounds would influence how we carry our bodies around each day. Feeling the impact of our faith in the Spirit’s power would mean we’d really believe in the Gospel:
“Lay down your life.” (John 15:13)
“Put down the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
“Love your enemies …” (Luke 6:27-36)
“Take nothing …” (Luke 9:3)
“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
For as Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49).
I am convinced, dear friends, that in these evolving (and yet ordinary) times we must trust and pray and have strong faith in the Spirit — with the possibility alive that good faith is the stuff of orthopraxy, not so much orthodoxy. For like the Spirit, our faith is shown through movement and bold acts.
If we are totally alive in the Fire, we will be formed by a type of freedom that makes us wild and brave. We’ll be weapon-free peacemakers fiercely giving our lives and acting boldly as instruments of true hope.
Let us do this, Church! Let’s act as instruments of the Fire, for as Greta Thunberg has said, it is through our actions that change is made: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Amen!
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
as opening buds
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
this is the peace that allows
this is the peace that accepts
this is the peace that invites
outreach, courage, trust, love
this peace causes commotion
this peace deepens consciousness
this peace builds community
diverse, celebrating, embracing
inner spaces open wider
minds, hearts and bodies
wildly restored and offered
into war zones as peacemakers
crossing borders and lines
we listen and love and learn
new languages, new ways
as peacemakers we share
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
as opening buds
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.
I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.
I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.
Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.
I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…