Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?
Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.
And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.
But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.
I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…
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!”
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.”
Amy 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.
I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.
This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.
We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.
Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks. He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.
In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.
In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”
“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”
This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own. He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.
And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.
So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.
But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”
We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.
Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.
Happy Feast of St. Clare! The following prose-poetry is dedicated to her.
This past Monday I drove north, from Kansas City to La Crosse, through lush fields of green growing up towards the sky. As I moved, my eyes focused on the constant road. It was an all-day drive after a two-month pilgrimage of study, retreat, service, connecting and contemplation in states called Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. (At one point this summer I also saw South Dakota from the other side of the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa.)
Now I am back in Wisconsin resisting (partly) a necessary reset of my mind after an experience among a community of creative Christians at The Glen Workshop: I am trying to write an academic paper while poetry in my memory and future propel me backward and forward–as the language of academia conflicts with what my soul desires. This tension is a bit like the thunderstorms that clouds can create; the electricity of the different parts of my mind can also create downpours.
Driving north over concrete and asphalt my gaze floated upward toward the expansive sky, bright blue and full of the puffs of evolving white clouds–clouds slow dancing with cheer and optimism. The clouds moved, merged, formed shapes of glory, as The Great Artist presented signs and affirmations by way of the best piece of interactive installation art ever made: this infinite, expanding universe. With each opening created in the clouds, I pondered my constant sense that The Great Artist was providing encouraging nods of “Keep moving in the right direction” and “Yes, you are part of my wonders, too.”
In the silver machine of mystery (the car, so it is to me) I listened to phenomenal podcasts as I made my way over horizons and toward my home. The words of poets, scientists and journalists multiplied my awe for the beauty and complexity of God’s creation, of this world made so multidimensional by the way we humans interact with God’s doings and pretty much make messes all over the place. I was completely blown away when I heard Paulo Coelho speak about his journey into becoming a writer. I was inspired by how Naomi Shihab Nye overturns the poetry found in ordinary life. I was flabbergasted by the scientific discoveries being made about the intelligence of the forest. And, I was horrified by the reality of what life is like for refugees in Greece nowadays. In each story told, the true wildness of who God made us to be and who we are was exposed: we are one, the body of Christ revealed by way of loving, enfleshed in service and creativity.
Across the expansive sky I saw diamonds and other mysterious shapes made from clouds. I saw hearts form, widen, evolve. Over rolling plains of farmland, human stories sort-of hugged me in the car container from all sides; tales of tough Truth and invitations to participate in God’s goodness came at me in surround sound. I gasped and grinned for the beauty of the images combined with Truth made into sounds, for the swirling mess of life and beauty enfleshed everywhere.
Hands on steering wheel, mind awake, foot on pedal, eyes wide open, heart expanding. Through God, in God, and by God the clouds moved. And so did I. So did all of us, as one.
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:
The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.
I look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.
I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:
The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.
Dear Abba, Papi
Take all of this and make it new.
With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth
And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,
The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …
All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …
I give you my own flesh.
They have no idea how gentle you are.
How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,
Powerful enough to heal and restore
Every broken cell
Of this Cosmic Body!
So I give you my body, this one life, that your love
May be released into this time and place
Like the lava of love that will never stop.
Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,
To reverence each face as your beloved
And to bear the suffering and resistance that
Will inevitably come
with the grace of your humble surrender,
infinite faith and extravagant love.
I love you with my whole self.
I give this one life I have totally to you.
And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.
You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.
There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.
We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…
I am an urban-educator who grew up in the country. I often feel like my entire life is a Truth-seeking adventure.
I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a very rural community. Currently, my parents live in an unincorporated village where the town welcome sign proudly announces 27 residents. Practically everyone I knew growing up looked and sounded a lot like me (fair skin, light eyes and hair, with a twangy Iowan accent). I attended public school until I went to college (even though I have always been interested in Christianity) because it was the only option. I didn’t live a sheltered life, really, but I was actually pretty isolated and protected. The woods, fields and pastures were my playground and I only heard gun shots during hunting season.
Now I live in Chicago-land, a sprawling urban area that has a population of over 9.8 million residents! I teach at an all boys inner-city, Catholic high school pretty much right-smack in the middle of all the action on Chicago’s south side. Today some of my students were casually talking about how they heard gun shots during their baseball game in the park, in the way that my high school friends would talk about hearing thunder during a game. “It was all right,” they said. “We got to keep playing because they weren’t too close.” I am worlds away from where I grew up.
I serve in a culture that is not my own. This high school is much more lively than mine ever was. From the elders to the children, there’s a different style than I am used to. Even though I have been in this community for about three years now, I am still frequently exposed to food, music, art, history and speech that is so foreign to me that it seems a passport should be required. I have had to adapt my teaching style, my expectations and learn a new way of communicating and making jokes. Everything is interesting and fascinating, and yet I am constantly self-evaluating to make sure I am not subconsciously behaving paternalistically. Fortunately, I have been embraced by the community and have experienced success. I am here to serve and it’s an honor and blessing to be so welcome.
Beloved: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth. -1 John 5:1-4, 6
During Holy Week 2012 I went on a Truth-teaching adventure. Eight of my students, a school colleague, and an urban 10-year-old (a chaperone’s son) and I squeezed into a van and drove five hours to the foreign land where I grew up. We stayed four days and nights growing as a team through many fun experiences, service-work, reflections, challenges, prayer and communion. God was up to a lot of good.
When I get to witness the Spirit at Truth at work, I am amazed I am part of it. I am amazed I get to see God in action. Observing enlightenment is like watching a flower bloom or a sunrise, a glorious newness emerges so gradually and quietly.
Before my students and I went on the trip, we had meetings to get ready. At one meeting I made a huge chart on the board that looked something like this:
We had a very interesting conversation when we tried to fill in the gaps. Before our trip we left the Truth row blank. Finding the Truth was named as one of the trip’s missions.
Jesus was our trip companion. Although we were in the hills of Northeast Iowa, I tried to keep my Holy Week spirit with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus is the man who is the best at teaching the Truth!
Like he said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”-John 8:31-32
In this blog series, adventures in the Spirit, I’ll write about all the Truth that was taught and learned by my students in Iowa during our Holy Week adventure.
I am a slow learner. I hear the sacred invitations of Lent and I still move toward the darkness. My life is busy right now and I wonder if my time with God in the desert is caving in on itself. Is it true that I need to understand darkness to be a child of the Light? Are all my examinations of the truth really helping me get ready for the sunrise? Or, am I making things harder for myself?
Together we’re in a Lenten desert where things aren’t too comfortable. God seems to have turned up the heat and hallowed out cool caves of confusion for us to take refuge. Our explorations of the caves of truth cause us to wonder. Is there a reason why we want to examine the rock formations within the dark? Can it also be our nature to stand and face the horizon, waiting to watch the glory of the sunrise? As light emerges can we listen to the songs of creation getting ready for a New Day?
I ponder these scenes in my heart when I remember to pause during my busy days. God is certainly using the local, natural beauty to ground me as I run around. I have to pay attention while I try to serve, teach, help and love. Every day is full of the Truth that can bring me closer to God. Truth can be rocky, heavy and hard.
This week daylight savings time has warped my routine some. My alarm clock becomes part of my dreams and I tune it out but the singing birds stir me out of slumber. Then, in a daze, I watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan and read psalms. I bow, blow out candles and say the Eucharistic prayer that my sisters say in our adoration chapel every hour with me while I am away on mission: “Sacrament most holy, Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine. Eucharistic heart of Jesus, furnace of Divine love, grant peace to the world.”
I gather my stuff and rush to work. On the way I encounter the needs of the world, hoping to bring the peace I pray for. Every child needs positive attention, every person needs to know that she is loved. I can’t keep up with the demands of being a teacher, no matter how much sleep I sacrifice or prayers I pray. It seems that I have to remain real. It’s more true to admit that I am doing my best but I would like to do better. A stone of truth in the cave is named: I must be humble.
I read the news and check my email. Awareness of injustices layer upon more demands. The freshness of the signs of spring stir worries and unrest. I am worried about the safety of the city, the garbage wrapping around fences and coating the land. I get crabby and annoyed that other people are messing up the world, but I fail to look in the mirror. Yet I am getting used to violent and cruel language. Along with other sufferings and wrong-doings, I tune things out instead of caring. Another rocky truth in the cave is named: I could be more loving and passionate about injustice.
When evening arrives I am exhausted but still spinning in restlessness. I realize I survived another day of mean misunderstandings and heavy work, but my guilt is stronger than gratitude. I feel like I need to keep working as long as I can or I won’t be ready for tomorrow. God stirs in my heart, asking me to sabbath. Come, rest in me. I shrug off God’s desert invitations and turn instead to shame and sorrow; I think I need to work harder. A boulder of truth in the cave is named: I need to trust in God.
I am glad that Lent is longer than a month because I seem to be a slow learner. I am getting it though, little by little, and with each new awareness my relationship with God is being restored and renewed. Eventually I’ll be able to leave the cool cave and re-encounter the heat of the furnace of Divine Love. Eventually all this Lenten work will ready me for the best sunrise ever: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the true Light of the world.
And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. -John 3:19-20