Love in the midst of the mess

You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.

You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.

Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.

You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…

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

Feeding Time at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander
Bubbles at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander

A litany for the teens in Parkland, FL

This time, it's different: The One-of-a-Kind Parkland Movement
Photo credit:

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:2

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

For our failure to protect children, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to elect leaders who protect lives, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.  
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.  
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy.  
For our greed, God, have mercy.  
For our pride, God, have mercy.  
For our violence, God, have mercy.  
For our excuses, God, have mercy.  
For our selfishness, God, have mercy.  
For our stubbornness, God, have mercy.  
For our love of guns, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of childhood, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of the vocation of teaching, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of schools, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of the joy of being young, God, have mercy.  
For permitting a society full of inequality, God, have mercy.  
For allowing money to have more power than people, God, have mercy.  
For putting any life above another life, God, have mercy.  
For calling people monsters, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to love our enemies, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to believe in you, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to follow your nonviolent way, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to trust You, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to trust each other, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to love one another, God, have mercy.  

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours Help us, Good God.

For teens who teach us how to raise our voice, We thank you God.
For teens who turn trauma into strength, We thank you God.
For teens who lead us on the path of peace, We thank you God.
For teens who speak Truth to power, We thank you God.
For teens who lead us to true freedom, We thank you God.
For teens who are smart and articulate, We thank you God.
For teens who are deep and wise,  We thank you God.
For teens who are the hope of this nation, We thank you God.
For teens who offer their gifts to the greater good, We thank you God.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours Help us, Good God.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

May we all have the courage to join the teens of Parkland, FL in demanding common sense gun reform and advocating for nonviolent peacemaking. Let’s unite to protect life, so that there is #NeverAgain a school shooting.  Sign up to join a march in your community on March 24th here: 

Loving and sassy

A fascinating thing happened this school year when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.

Kids can be so mean. I remember this from when I was in school.  As a teacher now, I see this reality right in front of me.  It’s awful.  At a Catholic Christian school it seems even  more disturbing, and as a religion teacher I feel a bit of responsibility for it.  I try to design curriculum that responds to my observations and helps my students to grow in Christ.

To help my students deal with people who are unkind, I planned a unit that focused on the teachings of Jesus.  I wanted them to learn how to be bold, brave, creative, peaceful, compassionate and kind–just like Jesus taught. My students memorized the Beatitudes and the great commandment. They realized that Jesus’ teachings are not fluffy or cozy, but really messy and difficult.

We also mulled a while on what Jesus REALLY meant when he said “love your enemies,” and “turn the other cheek.” Basically, we studied the Third Way of Jesus which is to creatively stand up for oneself and to honor the dignity of oppressors. To help the students understand I made a handout called Jesus’ non-violence explained.  Even though it’s really a simple concept, it’s extremely challenging to understand.

As I said, a fascinating thing happened when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.  I found myself telling my students that practicing Jesus’ methods of peacemaking–in that Third Way style–meant that we have to get downright loving and sassy.

A slogan emerged: Let’s get sassy for Jesus! We laughed about how it sounded like a country song. The former cheerleader in me wanted to make it into a chant: “Sassy for Jesus, yes we are!  I’m thanking the Holy Spirit for giving me a catchy way to teach the truth, because the students still remember it.

God’s got a great sense of humor, and humor is what true, loving, non-violence takes.  We can make light of persecution because, with the freedom that Christ gives, we are just as powerful as everyone else.  We see Jesus alive in all people, even those who are mean. We get to love them and remind them of their inherent dignity. It’s so good!

In the teenage world, this love and sass could come out when people make fun of our shirt or our shoes. For example, a creative, non-violent, Third Way practitioner might respond by saying “It shows how I feel about mean people. Isn’t it beautiful!?”

Recently I asked some of my students how the whole “loving your neighbor, loving your classmates” thing is coming along.  They groaned. “Sister, it’s so hard!”

Yes, loving our neighbors and being non-violent IS really hard. But wow, it’s so worth it. May God help us. Amen!

Photo credit:

Oh, and you might enjoy this interesting take on some of this problem about kids being mean to each other:

imagining a world free of drones

A couple of years ago, another Catholic youth minister despairingly asked me a very fascinating question that just keeps lingering:  “Julia, what can we do about the overall lack of imagination in the youth today?”

I think the question emerged from my friend’s brilliant analysis regarding the resistance we encounter when we challenge youth to dream and think beyond the ways of our culture.  It’s tough work to try to get teens to think radically about the Gospel.  A bizarre fear emerges when we ask for ideas, as if ideas can be right and wrong.  Ideas are ideas!

I don’t blame the youth. Our culture convinces children that there are comforts in consumerism through the scripts of television and video games before they can read. We celebrate children who can recite things in a robotic-type manner and seem to shun children who ask hard questions.  Fortunately, it’s kind of rare, but I do shudder when I encounter children who don’t know how to do pretend play, but are content with a hand-held video games for entertainment.  I wonder if anyone has studied children’s playtime? Specifically, are they playing “house” and “dress-up” less now that they are becoming skilled at using iPads and cellphones?

Sometimes I am a bit frightened.  I wonder what this shift in childhood could be doing to our future. Plus, I wonder how a decrease in imagination will influence our church, our Gospel living and our work for building God’s kingdom of peace and justice here and now.

I was recently reminded of this problem- our cultural lack of imagination about the things that matter most- by my friend Brian Terrell when he described his opposition to drones on WBEZ’s WorldView.

Drones are awful and wrong and sinful.  Can you believe that young soldiers sit safely in the United States and operate video-game-like controls that are causing bombs to be dropped on villages in entirely different parts of the world?!  What are we doing to young minds if they start to think that the horrors of war feel just like video games?!

Drones are evil.  We aren’t paying enough attention to them nor discussing their horrors as we should be.  I am not an expert on the topic like Brian has come to be, but I do believe that the use of drones around the world right now is not unlike the Nazi led holocaust during WWII. People are silently being killed, people are making up justifications and few people are reacting.  Any fuss that will start in the future is actually fuss that will be much too late, kind-of like it was with the holocaust.

Our Gospel mission must be to spread the good news that we can really live a life without weapons, war, violence and inequality.  We must be sweating our hearts out, as we serve and dream up new ways of bringing peace to the masses. We must excite and energize the youth with dreams of peace and justice- and then help them realize that our dreams for peace need not be dreams at all! Love is stronger than any type of evil, and it is time for this Truth to set all humanity free.

We can love our way out of the mess we’re in.

After all, dear Christians in the USA, if our country thinks that the justification for drones is that it is the only way we can keep ourselves safe from harm, then it’s time for an entire nation to contemplate the great question of my friend:  What can we do about the overall lack of imagination!?

Let’s get busy playing and imagining the world God intended. Amen!

(P.S.   By the way, here’s one simple action to try to clean up the mess while we get busy imagining.)

3 simple ways to honor St. Francis today

Happy St. Francis Day!!!

I love this guy.

Today, I invite you to do three simple and important things to honor St. Francis and his legacy that continues to inspire people, like me, to follow Jesus in messy, authentic ways.  The three actions I propose are totally Franciscan things to do.

Join my Franciscan family and me in celebrating the goodness of God and praising him for the gift of our founder!

Help us try to build the kingdom of God through our actions, ministry, simple lifestyle and prayer.

1.) Help the Poor.  There are a lot of ways you can help those less fortunate. I really, really would like you to help me with one cause that is near and dear to my heart and causing me to have a hard week.  The people who I know at Tubman House in California are in desperate need for help right now.  Unless they get enough donations quickly they’ll have to close this weekend or at the end of the month. If Tubman closes, some amazing parents and their children will go back to being homeless and the organization will be forced to stop doing all the amazing work they doRead all about the details and make a donation here.  Sign up to become a regular donor here.

2.) Protect the Environment. Just like helping the poor, there are many, many ways you can protect the environment.  I’d love it if you checked out all the awesome work that the good people at Catholic Climate Covenant are up to. And, then, I hope you’ll sign The St. Francis Pledge!

3.) Pray and Work for Peace. I had trouble coming up with a suggestion for this one– because there are so many issue specific peace organizations- -but being a nonviolent peacemaker is totally important.  Perhaps we can all pause for at least 30 quiet minutes in solitude and silence today to pray for peace in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our country and our world.

The great thing is that if we do these three simple actions we won’t just honor Francis, we’ll honor Jesus too.  That’s the great thing about saints!

Thanks for your participation and Happy St. Francis Day!

adventures in the Spirit, part 4

Living by the Spirit that is Truth is not comfortable.  We can feel crammed into corners, we have to give up control, we have to trust others.  Sometimes we are exhausted but still have to keep pushing ourselves.  Our bodies can hurt, but we still have to carry heavy loads and keep moving onward.  When we’re dedicated to God’s Truth-seeking missions, however, it’s all worth it.

The service trip that my students took to Iowa during Holy Week ended on Good Friday.  The meaning of the day hummed in the background of our spirited movement.

Day Five: Crossing Over


We have to say goodbye and head down the road.  First, some of the people who helped us have an incredible experience come to say goodbye and see us off.

Just like it was for Jesus on his way to the cross, our journey back to Chicago is full of surprise stops.  Before we get too far away from Gunder, we get to see one more farm.

Farmer Amanda raises chickens, ducks and turkeys and sells the eggs and meat.  We are surprised to learn that some of the eggs we ate earlier in the week were actually duck eggs. And, we enjoy learning how it works to farm poultry and playing with the animals.  Plus, she had a sheep on her farm, so it was fun to get to meet him too!   To me, it seemed like the perfect farm to visit to kick-off Easter weekend.

We say more goodbyes and thank you’s and we continue on down the road.  After a while, we arrive at the Field of Dreams near Dyersville for a visit and a little baseball.

Some of the students are part of our school’s top-rated baseball team, so it was a special thrill for them to see the site.

In the car we pray the stations of the cross together.  We had intended to stop and pray them but we would have arrived in Chicago too late.  That’s one of things about seeking the Truth and following Jesus as we cross over boundaries: we must remain flexible and willing to make-do with the time and resources provided.  The good news is that we can still experience God’s mystery everywhere we go!

We stop again in Dubuque and near Rockford to eat and take a break before we finally arrive back at the school around 6 p.m. It’s Good Friday.  Like Jesus was when he went to the cross, we’re weary, tired and overwhelmed. We have experienced and learned a lot in a brief amount of time.  We have tried to learn the Truth and relate over boundaries. Our reunions with our families are joyous, but our new service-trip family says goodbye to each other with new appreciation and awareness.

After Easter weekend and spring break are over and school is back in session, the students gather in my classroom for a final meeting.  I show them this movie:

And, I ask them what they learned about the Truth during the trip.  I hear:

People are good and people are people no matter where they are and what they do. 

I love Iowa and I want to go back.

Even though people are different than us, they really care about us.

I also ask the students how the experience changed them and helped them grow.  I hear:

I learned service is fun and it’s really nice to help people.

I learned how to communicate better with my family and other people, and the importance of good communication.

I learned to be more grateful for what I have. 

I learned to keep an open mind about people and places that are different than what I know.

Indeed, when we enter into adventures with the Spirit we learn the importance of opening our minds.  With open minds the Spirit shows us Truth, we get to cross boundaries and relate to people who are different then us, and we become changed.

Along the way, we cooperate with God without even realizing it and experience the reign of God come.  Just by us being who we are, the Spirit of Truth does great work.  We are blessed and renewed and the world and Church radiate with fire of God’s glory and goodness. You don’t have to take my word for it:

“The renewal of the Church is … achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei

Indeed we are called and indeed we have responded.  By the grace of God, through great adventures in the Spirit, awesome things happen.  Amen, Amen, Alleluia and Thanks be God!

adventures in the Spirit, part 3

A wise priest once helped me understand what Spirit means.  Spirit, he said, is all that relates beyond boundaries.  Our Spirits can transcend time, place and bodily nature to relate to our God, the Great Source.  Jesus said His Spirit would be with us always.  At times, it seems as if the spirits of those who have died are close to us.

And, here and now, in our daily Gospel living, our Spirits can relate across the borders of culture, race, social class and place.  It is the work of service, ministry, and real, messy, Gospel-living to move across borders and interact with those who are different from us.

As our Spirits relate in new environments, we learn the Truth. We gain awareness and compassion.  We become more interconnected and united.  We build the reign of God and become more holistically the body of Christ.

This is the continuation of the story of 11 people moving their spirits across borders and relating to difference.  It’s a great adventure to live in the Spirit.

Day 3: Loving God’s Creation


We’re beginning to get sleepy from all the fun and activity and it’s a little harder to be ready on time this morning, but we still get up and enjoy another wonderful homemade breakfast served by our hosts.  Afterward, we gather around our painted candles for morning prayer and reflection. We are reminded that we can rejoice, as God loves the poor:

I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”   Psalm 69: 31, 33-34

The first place we visit is the Postville office of Northeast Iowa Helping Services.  We are overwhelmed to hear how domestic violence and poverty harms people in rural areas.  We learn how hard it is for victims to leave abusive situations when there are so many dual-roles in small communities.  We have to think about how hard it is to run-away from violence in the country where there is no public transportation and everything is spread far apart.  In the country, there may not be fears of gang-violence, but violence is still damaging lives.

The sad stories of sin sink our spirits and we struggle with learning the Truth.

After an intense start of the day, we venture out to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.  We head to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the river-bluffs by the Mississippi River near Marquette, Iowa.  In the woods we get to contemplate how to respond to injustice in loving ways and have fun learning about Native Americans and nature.

We enjoy a picnic and explore the museum and woods.

The views of the Mississippi River from the bluff tops are remarkable.

We still need to do something to make a difference.  We go to Osborne Nature Center near Elkader.  Before working we get to see some wild animals up close.

Then we help to clear an invasive species, garlic mustard, from the woods to help the natural wildlife thrive.

The next thing we do is attend Bible Study.  We’re nervous and excited about joining the youth group from First Baptist Church in Elgin for their weekly meeting.  After eating pizza and playing get-to-know-you games, we become comfortable with each other even though we seem different.  We pray and contemplate scripture. Then we have a lot of fun playing in the dark on a trampoline with the local Iowa teens.

Back in Gunder, at evening prayer and reflection, I asked the students what the most important things were that they learned that day.  One student said that he learned how important it is to stand up against violence and abuse.  Another said that he learned that the woods can be a lot of fun.  A third said that he learned that there are good people everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin.

Day 4:  Broken Systems, Breaking Bread

Thursday. Our last full day in Iowa.

We’re getting weary but yet we wake up excited for another day of adventure.  After breakfast, our morning reflection reminds us that it is Holy Thursday.  This night, Jesus gathered with his friends and broke bread and taught about communion.  We pray that we can unite through the brokenness of humanity.

Our first site today is Decorah.  Decorah is interesting because it is the closest major town to Gunder.  It’s 40 minutes away and where you can find the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  We are warmly welcomed to the Luther College campus with a presentation, gifts and a tour. We learn that Northeast Iowa was settled by immigrants from Norway and Germany in the 1800’s and that’s why there’s a Norwegian ELCA Lutheran college in this town.

Our excellent host at Luther, Pastor David Vasquez, has arranged for us to enjoy the college’s climbing wall and enjoy lunch in the college cafeteria.

We all feel pretty successful after the experience.

Well fed, we go to help feed the hungry. At the First Lutheran Church food pantry we help unload the truck from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and learn how the church helps provide food and free health care to people from all over Winneshiek County.

After a break for shopping in downtown Decorah, Pastor Dave helps us reflect about everything we have experienced on our trip.

And, Pastor David grounds us in the stories of God’s people.  We are reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament and how he and his brothers immigrated to Egypt.  We learn about the push and pulls that have caused people to move for centuries.  We hear about horrors of the Postville Immigration raid of 2008 and watch this trailer:

And, we hear how God’s law of Love tells us to work for justice:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.-Exodus 23:9

The Spirit has moved people across many borders.  After the presentation, we learn about the Norwegian Immigrant Experience to the United States in the 1800’s at the Vesterheim Museum.

We are learning about human struggle, but we still enjoy a break at The Whippy Dip before we go to Postville.

In Postville we hear about the horrors of the 2008 Immigration Raid right where it happened. We visit the tiny St. Bridget Catholic Church where hundreds sought refuge during the aftermath of the raid.

We see the meat-packing plant that was once called Agri-processors. In both places, Pastor Dave tells us the true stories about what his friends lived through.

Our Holy Thursday dinner happens around a giant table at the Mexican restaurant in Postville with the stories of brokenness stirring in our spirits.

Afterward, we go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader for mass and hear how Jesus washed the feet of his friends, pray, break bread, sing songs and feel a little uncomfortable because we really stick out for being different.

Back in Gunder, we try to reflect on all that we learned throughout the day.  One of my student says “What happened in Postville was a really big deal. Why doesn’t everyone know about it?”  

We give thanks for the ways that the others in our group have blessed us throughout the week. Around a fire we are commissioned.  We will return to where we came from, but we’ll keep living by the Spirit.  We shall continue to relate beyond bounds.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of adventures in the Spirit.

Visit here for Part 1 and Part 2.

love upon my heart for teens like Trayvon

A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils.  We’re angry, lamenting and mourning.  In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.

Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school.  He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day.  Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong.  The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital.  Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted.  This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention.  I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class.  His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him.  “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.

It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.

Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose.   My students are teens, just like Trayvon.  They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls.  They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework.  They’re typical teenage boys.

My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys.  They have to be careful about where they go and what they do.  They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason.  Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.

My students should not be in danger for being who they are.  No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like.  Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.

…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.   -Jeremiah 31:32b-34

I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice.  I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus.  My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.

It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago.  I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa.  I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity.  I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work.  To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)

It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me.  Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing.  When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.

Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator.  I am leading a service-learning trip to my home.  I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries.  We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together.  They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.

The service trip will be interesting and amazing.  We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun.  I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth.  I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace.  God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.

It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe.   Yet, I have hope.  They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth.  Together, all humanity is learning the truth.

The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice.  God’s law is written on all of our hearts.

This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.

around the world, being different

Several years ago I was very blessed to have the opportunity to do some traveling in South Africa.  I traveled in a way that was probably not atypical for other world travelers in their early 20s.  I met people who were interested in exploring the same places and seeing the same sites and then we would join together and share the expenses.

One day, for example, another American student and I rented a car with two other young women from the UK.  We drove from Cape Town to the Cape Point National Park and encountered some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen in my life.

Cape Point
Cape Point

One of my most vivid memories from the day was a moment I had with one of these strangers from the UK.  We were walking down the path and sharing a bit about who we were.  She told me that she was a Christian, and I surprised myself by saying “I thought so! I could tell!” And she said “I can tell you are one too!” Together we marveled at how we could tell.  We realized we could only guess. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was our attitudes, perhaps we were who we hoped to be and we were greeting others with the warmth and unconditional love of Christ, perhaps we were radically counter-cultural like the Gospel compelled us to be.

What we also realized is that one of the other women who was traveling with us also proclaimed to be a Christian even though she wasn’t really much different from anybody else.  Her obsessions and attitudes didn’t demonstrate that she was in love with the Gospel and Jesus.  She didn’t seem to be living a counter-cultural life in any sort of way; she just seemed like a regular person. And, as far as recognizing another Christian by some sort of feeling, we weren’t really sure if she would get what we were talking about.  Certainly it wasn’t our job to judge her faith, but we were probably making that mistake.

Faith, after all, is a struggle for most people in our incredibly complex and secular world.

Not too long ago, as you probably know, I was blessed to have another international travel experience. At the World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, I was crammed into crowds of literally a million young Christians from around the world.  These youth were much more attached to the specific Christian classification of Catholicism.  No matter the flavor of faith, though, for Christians we’re all rooted in the Love of Jesus and good news of the Gospel.  And, what happens in our hearts and prayer should compel us to act, look and live differently from what is common.

At the end of the World Youth Day experience, two million people gathered in a old airfield for an evening of prayer.  We hiked there in the boiling heat on Saturday, set up our camps, and tried to stay hydrated and cool (which seemed practically impossible, considering how hot it was).

When I went in search of water that afternoon, I had an interesting observation.  A million teens and young adults, no matter how they kneel in prayer or study the Catechism, are still a million teens and young adults.  The same temptations hover over good intentions as they would in any other huge crowd of young people.  Then, when people are thirsty and there are language barriers and other frustrations, a spirit of compassion, kindness and helpfulness may not be natural.  In fact, when things are really tough, people naturally look out for themselves, it seems.  In one situation, for example, I had to remind some teenagers to allow an elderly man to get a drink of water.

I realized I had to set aside my idealism for a bit and just pray that everyone would fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel and be the people God made them to be.  Is that what it takes for Christians to really be different?  Is that what it takes for kindness and concern for others to be our directive?

Despite heat-induced mistakes, the young people still blew me away.  Upon my return to the  United States I’ve been asked what my favorite part of the trip was.  After we survived heat, crushing crowds, and a fierce storm together we shared a moment of extreme reverence.  Imagine two-million people kneeling on the ground in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and the power, energy, and awe vibrating into the earth. Imagine the peace that moved around the world because of that prayer.  Imagine the blessing! That was my favorite moment of the trip.

During that profound moment I learned a great lesson.  In addition to kindness and our counter-culturally living, praying makes us different, too.