As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students:why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?
I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?
The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”
“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”
The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”
I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher mode — I was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.
I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.
My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which way — if anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed something — I couldn’t see what he could.
It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.
But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?
Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day — my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances — become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.
My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:
Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
On Sunday, I stood in a Church parking lot with about a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation. I held a pile of paper plates under my arm, a black marker in my hand. The youth all stood behind a line, listening to me as I described their task: moving as a team to another line many feet away. The challenge was my version of the team building game, Stepping Stones.
“That line, over there, represents the Kingdom of God that you are called to build up. Right now you are in Church on that side of the line, but you must move outward, as a Christian community. You will venture out into a world where the focus is often not on the things of God, where you are often pressured to be someone you are not called to be, someone who is selfish and greedy and mean. Instead, you must be a community and work together and not fall into temptations. (If anyone in your group touches the swamp of sin, then you all must start over.)
“All you have are these stepping-stones, representing the Christian practices that keep you strong, faithful and focused on Christ. If you let go of any of these practices (if you are not touching the stone as you move forward) then you cannot use the stepping-stone; the hungry sharks (your confirmation sponsors standing over there, watching on the sideline right now) will snatch them up.
“In order for you to have these stepping-stones available to you, I need to hear you name a Christian attitude or action that will enable you to have strength, to build up God’s kingdom and remain on the path of holiness. What do you say?”
The teens started to name typical Christian behaviors. I wrote each one on a plate and handed the plates to them one at a time, so they could use them as stepping-stones to help them move to the other line.
“Go to Church.”
“Be nice to people.”
“Read the Bible.”
“Good, good. What else? You have more plates here that could become stones if you say more things that Christians do.”
What was said then totally surprised me, even though it was absolutely right.
The next day, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” was published; it means “Rejoice and be glad!” As I read the exhortation, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about the teens who are about to get confirmed and our discussions during the retreat. It was very clear that they already understood the universal call to holiness; now my prayer for them is that they will boldly follow that call, no matter how messy Gospel living may be.
I hope we all do.
What follows are a few highlights from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” sorted into categories I made in order to highlight how moving on the path of holiness and living with joy is often messy, challenging work. As we live this way, let us rejoice!
“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14)
“That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” (#20)
EVEN SAINTS MESS UP
“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (#22)
“May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.” (#24)
GOD IS IN THE MESSY PLACES
“Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” (#42)
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.” (#75)
“A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.” (#76)
HOLINESS CAN REQUIRE MAKING A MESS
“Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25).” (#90)
HOLINESS IS ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED, GETTING UNCOMFORTABLE
“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (#98)
“For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease. Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough. The bishops of Canada made this clear when they noted, for example, that the biblical understanding of the jubilee year was about more than simply performing certain good works. It also meant seeking social change: ‘For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.'” (#99)
“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” (#101)
“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves. We will find it hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need, unless we are able to cultivate a certain simplicity of life, resisting the feverish demands of a consumer society, which leave us impoverished and unsatisfied, anxious to have it all now. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters. Yet even amid this whirlwind of activity, the Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life.” (#108)
“Such inner strength makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good. It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God (pístis) can also be faithful to others (pistós). They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction.” (#112)
“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’” (#120)
“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite. His compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation. Let us acknowledge our weakness, but allow Jesus to lay hold of it and send us too on mission. We are weak, yet we hold a treasure that can enlarge us and make those who receive it better and happier. Boldness and apostolic courage are an essential part of mission.” (#131)
“God is eternal newness.He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.” (#135)
HOLINESS MEANS ENTERING INTO THE MESSINESS OF GROWTH
“Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.” (#134)
“Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil.Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for ‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents … Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.'” (#163)
“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways.Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everything be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (#172)
“When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off-limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment.” (#175)
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…
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: www.marchforourlives.com
You’re experiencing a kairos moment right now and a host of core issues. Now is the acceptable time. Will you have the wisdom to receive it and the courage to repent?
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!
Oh, and you might enjoy this interesting take on some of this problem about kids being mean to each other:
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 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!
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 do. Read 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!
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!
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.
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.