Strength in weakness

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  — 2 Corinthians 12:9

Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.  

Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.  

Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.  

Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.  

two-women-green-shirts-sign
Sister Shannon Fox, right, and her co-worker, Sister Kim, show strong support for their students “Because Their Dreams Matter.”

Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher.  I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.

“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.

“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”  

“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.  

“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”  

“It was hard for you?” he asked.  

“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.  

“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.

“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer.  It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.  

In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister Shannon Fox

sister-shannon-fox

Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.

I fasted on only bread and juice for Lent. This is what I learned.

My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.

A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

Lent’s inevitable disappointment and the constant turn to God

Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”

“Inevitable disappointment.”

The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?

My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?

What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?

“thorns in the desert” by Julia Walsh FSPA

I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.

This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.

I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)

Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.

So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.

And for all this, I am deeply grateful.

I Walked into Suffering on the Road to Santiago

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”

The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.

For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.

The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that…  [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Pilgrims going into Santiago
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Enough or not

I live on the cusp of enough and dreamy desires; in the liminal land of paradox.

I am always trying to make do with my limits, to authentically live my vow of poverty and get re-rooted in simple living.

Yet. I am always longing for more.

Desire, dreams, faith and hope fuel my energy. Even when I am overwhelmed or exhausted, a vision of justice-prevailing and the Kingdom of God coming into full fruition remains my impetus for laboring and loving. I believe that the peace Jesus proclaimed is possible.

 

Honestly, my yearning for more-than-is/more-than-I-have-right-now isn’t always about the ideals I hold close to me. Some of my dreams are embarrassingly superficial, completely basic and ordinary. Like Oh, how I wish I had a panini maker to cook this sandwich or This hairdryer is too loud and clunky, I should get a new one. I am regularly creating mental lists of objects that I think will create more convenience and efficiency in my busy life, just because I too fall for the lies of American commercialism and capitalism. I have to catch myself. When I find myself thinking that more stuff will be a solution, I must gain new consciousness. I must recommit myself to my vow of spiritual and material poverty, to my “Yes” to trusting that God has always given me enough. I really know how to make-do with what I have, I just have to remind myself of this frequently.

Every day, every moment, I have enough. I have enough time. Enough materials. I have all that I need. I have passion and potential. I am loved and supported. God’s abundance is infinite and as a child of God, I have access to the graces and strength and power and love that is enough for me. We all are children of God and we all have access.

Some days–in some moments–this means I must truly honor my limitations and needs. I am tired, I need to rest or I will kill myself if I try to meet this deadline, I must ask for an extension. This is an element of honoring my own dignity as sacred, of caring for the vessel of the Holy Spirit that I aim to be.

I am limited. I am weak. And, amazingly, by God’s grace when it comes to what matters most, I totally have enough. I must trust and allow myself to remain in God’s loving hands.

 

But then.

God calls me to continual growth, to be a steward and foster the gifts I have been given. Just like the rest of you, I am invited to expand the reign of God and contribute to a better society, to a more just and peaceful humanity.

I really am heartbroken about the ways that we don’t honor every human life as sacred in our culture. Unborn babies are killed and criminals are executed. Street shootings are common. Prisons practice torture and remain open and funded. Drones are still flying and people are still starving to death.

I have a responsibility to contribute to positive social change. I can develop my own talents and abilities so to better glorify God through all my choices.

 

Do I have enough or not? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want to be greedy.  I want to be a person who creates, not consumes. I do know that I am on the edge of satisfaction and healthy discontentment. A Gospel tension is alive within me, a Spirited realization that the world is not the way God intended, because we truly are sinful creatures.

I am slowly learning that this tension is holy ground. It turns out that this dilemma of desire is actually our God-given nature. Though limited, we all are on a journey of growth and self-improvement. By God’s design satisfaction and contentment are fleeting; we constantly yearn to know, feel and experience more.

Ultimately though, when we yearn in the in-between space of Hope for a better world and This is enough, we are yearning for God; for the simple, loving Way of Jesus. We desire God–for the source of all the justice and goodness that we believe in–to prevail and reign. May it be so, Amen, Indeed!

 

"Changing" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Changing edges” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Blessed by our brokenness

We’re all broken.

Broken by our pain and suffering, broken by injustice, broken by the Truth.

The activities of Lent help me encounter my brokenness. Or, more like, confront my brokenness. I am tuned into social injustices in a great volume. In particular, I am praying and thinking about poverty and hunger a lot due to the nature of the CRS Rice Bowl and the Food Fast I helped with last weekend.

And, I am getting more real with myself about my needs for real repentance. I am weak, I am a sinner. I am so far from perfect that sometimes it’s hard to believe I am a child of God.

The Truth is, Jesus was broken too. Right — he was not sinful, of course, but he certainly experienced pain, suffering and dependence on his Father for wholeness and completeness. We depend on Jesus to be whole, healthy, and holy.

Living a Eucharistic life means we embrace our brokenness and acknowledge that our pain and brokenness is, amazingly, a blessing. Somehow, suffering is redemptive. And we get to know this through Christ. Our brokenness unites us with Christ, for Jesus is with us and knows suffering. Just like the Eucharistic prayers say, Christ is blessed, broken and shared. This is the Bread of Life that nourishes us, strengthens us.

We are also blessed, broken and shared through Christ, in community. Let us lean on each other and unite and heal. Let us open up to the graces only found in Jesus for the True freedom and peace that comes with trusting the mystery that our brokenness is truly a blessing. Soon we’ll be rejoicing with hope and joy, for we trust that Jesus is our redeemer. Yes, this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and we’re getting very closer to the celebrations of salvation on Easter Sunday.

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As we lift up our voices and wave our palms, let us really cry out to Jesus in gratitude for the freedom that is offered:

Amen!!