Be perfect

Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?

Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker. The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!”  Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”

woman-covering-mouth
Image courtesy of everydayfeminism.com

My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?

It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.

Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.

Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).”  The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.

I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.

“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”

How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.

No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.

“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Mud, muck, and the courage of change

I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!

The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faithsuch courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.

God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!

Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of springof beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormantshows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.

Photo credit: https://strangfordloughnationaltrust.files.wordpress.com

Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle (published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:

There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.

Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate. 

During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.

True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.

In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.

Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)

And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:

Amen! Alleluia!

Foolish weirdness for the sake of Jesus

A couple weeks ago I was asked to play a giant game of foursquare at a school pep rally.

I tend to make a fool of myself a lot.

I believe that when we live the Gospel we must be wiling to sacrifice and risk, and sometimes the price is embarrassment. We must not be too concerned about our image or consequences or what others think of us. We must be wiling to put ourselves out there, on the line, no matter the cost.

Ultimately, we must be detached and trust God because the actions that require courage- whether they are bold or subtle- are the ones that build up the reign of God. When we are fearless about being strange and different, we allow God to use us as an instrument. That’s when all sorts of transformations occur- for us and the larger community.

I knew the game of foursquare was going to be a giant gym-sized game with a great big exercise ball, totally unlike what I tried to play on the playground in elementary school.  This frightened me a bit.

The court I played on a few weeks ago was much different than this one. (Photo credit: http://www.pgpedia.com /f/four-square)

I have practically no athletic skills. In fact, I am quite uncoordinated and clumsy.  A group of students were putting together the faculty team and I figured that they asked me to participate to give the student team an advantage.

Naturally, I was a little freaked out.  I was very nervous and scared I would hurt myself and end up in the ER with a broken bone or something. Or worse, maybe I would hurt someone else. Was I really capable of doing this?

Then there were the rules. Despite multiple explanations, I didn’t understand the way the game worked. I basically entered the court clueless about what was happening; I only understood I needed to keep the ball out of the square I was in.

Why did I agree to this potentially humiliating task?  In a sense, because I knew that a “yes” to the invitation to participate was a kind of ritual of accepting approval and love of my students. I love my students and am so thankful for the moments when I feel loved by them. I wanted return the love. 

Once the game began, I started being surprised. I quickly found out that I was capable and that I enjoyed it! I discovered that I can be ambitious and not intimidated by a crowd of a few hundred students and adults I admire, and just let go and get into it. (When we are living the Gospel we also have to just let go and get into it!)

Transformations were happening all over the place. I was personally surprised and transformed as I discovered that I could play the game well. I found myself having several “dumb luck” moments;  I would hit the ball and the crowd would cheer and I didn’t understand why. Basically every time I had success, I shared a gift and heard joy erupt from the crowd: a communal transformation.

In the end, I was very surprised that I could actually play well and I enjoyed playing, too. I was thrilled that my participation brought joy to others and built up the school community. And, it felt great to go around the school building afterward and hear “great job in foursquare Sister! Wow, you’re really good!” Ha!

I guess we never know what God might do with us when we say yes to love, to community, and to making fools of ourselves. In this case and many others, I’ve learned that we just might end up being transformed. Amen!

Resolute acceptance

Guest blogger: Steven Cottam 

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… it strikes us when year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now, perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.

 –Paul Tillich, “You are Accepted.”

 

January is usually a very frustrating month for me. The reason is that I always make New Year’s Resolutions… and I almost always fail to keep them. December always ends in a flurry of nearly crazed exclamations: This is the year I will get organized! This is the year I will exercise more! This is the year I will drink less; and I will pray a rosary every day; and I will learn Spanish! Truly, this is the year I shall become a veritable superhero, doing everything right and nothing wrong, forever and ever, amen!

As you can guess, by January 7 most of my resolutions have already begun to fade, and before long I’m pretty much back right where I started. The truth is, these things are things I have wanted to change all year—things that I have struggled with all year—yet somehow I always imagine that the moment when Earth’s odometer rolls over has enough magic in it to banish all my demons in one fell swoop.

2012 Calendar
This ultimately makes me feel pretty crummy, since January ends up serving as a big neon highlighter, pointing out to me all the things I wish were different about myself.

It is for that reason that Paul Tillich’s words resonate with me so strongly, and why I try and read them at this time of year. It is startling to think, as I sit among my pile of shattered resolutions, feeling grubby and small, that God accepts me. God loves me. God will not merely love me tomorrow; God will not love the me who has learned Spanish and files his taxes early. God loves me today just as I am.

To really believe this is, I think, far harder than it appears. We pay this idea a lot of lip service, but I think we fail to truly internalize it; I know that I do. We have this inkling that God likes us, maybe, but we believe that he would like us just a little bit more if we were a little bit better. It’s tempting to allow that idea to propel us to greater sanctity, but behind it lurks something of a poison. If we cannot allow God to accept us as we are, if we cannot allow infinite love to embrace us, it is nigh impossible to accept people as they are. If we demand constant improvement from ourselves, if we must earn God’s love, we end up demanding the same from others.

So, in the midst of whatever resolutions you might have made, try and sit for a few seconds and really contemplate this fact: You Are Accepted. Don’t do anything with it. Instead of trying so hard to do something, to make another resolution, to add another item to your to-do list, take a second and just be accepted. Invite a moment of grace. And then see not what you can do with that grace, but what that grace can do with you.

surrendering

Lately my spirit has been contemplating what it really means to be poor and surrender all. If I admit that nothing at all is mine, and truly everything is God’s, then what will become of me?  If I give up my possessions and follow Jesus, certainly my life shall be transformed. But, what if I also give up my dreams, desires, hopes, pride, ideas, time, preferences, feelings and thoughts?  Nothing at all is mine, all is gift that is temporary and belongs to God. I am asked to pass the gift.

Maybe the the surrendering will  transform me.  Can I stop clinging from the outcomes that I desire too?  Can I truly be open and trust? Will I let Love lead the way?