This Is My Story

Reading list

(Photo credit: jakebouma)

Once I was reading Strega Nona to a five-year-old friend, and he expressed genuine anxiety about how it would turn out.

I was surprised. He really thought this book about a friendly witch and her magic pasta pot might end with the entire town being engulfed by pasta? He didn’t see the connection between this story and other stories he knew? I told him I knew it would be okay, and he let me keep reading to the end.

The more you read, the more you learn to make predictions about what may happen next in the narrative. It’s a necessary skill for a fluent reader and it’s a skill that can’t be taught. You just have to keep immersing yourself in the stories over and over until you learn what to expect.

This is why I dive into the Bible again and again. The more I read, the more connections I see between different parts of the story and between the story and my own life. Liturgy does this too; when I attend Mass, I rehearse how to truly live a life centered on Christ. When I recite creeds with other Christians, I’m narrating the common truths that enliven our individual existences. Together, we find the courage to affirm crazy things – that our story won’t end with our deaths, that the poor and those who mourn are blessed.

The culture I live in tells me a different kind of story – a story where death wins, where all suffering is frightening, where illness and imperfection are to be avoided at all costs. It’s this story that makes me wig out over my smallest failures or judge other people. I grew up in a world dominated by this narrative, and it disturbs me how quickly I forget any other. To truly believe in God, I have to insert myself into the great Story over and over again until I learn to see the patterns.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” My heart must beat with God’s story so the words that spill automatically from my mouth in times of stress will be words of peace. My heart must learn over and over again that my struggles in this life are momentary, are nothing compared to eternal glory. My heart must tell itself over and over to truly love God and neighbor. That’s the backbone of this story.

That’s my new year’s resolution in a nutshell. Read the story. Learn the story. Share the story. Remember that it’s a story about love.

This Year, I Really Do Want World Peace

Candles

Photo credit: magnuscanis

Reposted from December 17, 2012. Let’s not forget to pray for peace this Christmas – for hearts that are brave enough to be truly nonviolent, and for a peaceful world.

My partner and I light a candle and read together from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

We take a walk to look at Christmas lights in our favorite neighborhood. The sidewalk is a river of families and children, and I find myself praying for their safety. I come home and turn on the Yo-Yo Ma holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace, on which no fewer than five tracks are versions of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I’m glad to have it repeating, filling my ears and my mind.

I’ve never felt such a desire for peace at Christmas, such an urgent hope for light. The events of the last few weeks have made the darkness seem so great. Not just the darkness of death, but also the darkness of not knowing why. With the shooters dead, there is no way we can really know what was going through their minds when they brought death and terror to so many. We analyze, hypothesize, call for change, and so we should, but deeper questions remain. Why does such darkness exist in our hearts? Why such a thirst for violence? What is wrong with this world?

It’s easy for people like me to forget that every Christmas comes to a dark world. Thousands of children die daily around the globe. Some are killed, while others die from hunger or disease, and few of us outside their communities or families notice or care. Jesus was born, too, into a world of senseless violence, especially against children. The Gospel of Matthew reports that, threatened by the birth of a baby King, Herod arranged a massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While scholars disagree on the historicity of this story, it doesn’t seem out of character for Herod, who famously killed his own sons.

Not a part of the Christmas story most of us think about.

So, yeah, it’s pretty much always been dark out there. It’s dark in here too, in my heart, behind my eyes. That’s harder for me to forget than the outer darkness, but I believe it’s all connected. I used to think I wasn’t a violent person. Little old five-foot-three, skinnybones, Prince-of-Peace-believing me? I’ve never laid a punch in my life, and I’m even gun-shy in video games. Yet when I sleep easy while nations war on my behalf, can I really say my hands are clean? And there are those who know me well enough to give a list of the damage I’ve done in a single moment of stupid rage. Mostly words are my weapon of choice, but who’s to say that in a different situation, I might not make a worse choice? Am I not capable of just as much as anyone else?

So I pray for light to flood the world and illuminate the shameful places in me. I pray for peace on earth, as audacious and crazy as that sometimes feels. But that’s the very beauty of Christmas, the way it calls us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, starting with the idea that a virgin can give birth. That this could be the birth of a person fully God and fully human, the unknowable Divine suddenly with fingerprints and a heartbeat. That God would stoop to sneak into our world one dark night, let himself be shoved into a stable for heaven’s sake, and take the shape of one more fragile little child. That he would grow up to teach enemy-love and the blessedness of peacemakers, then become the ultimate innocent victim of violence. That his horrific death would transform into abundant life for all the world. And that he himself would be Light for us.

Against all reason, even while I mourn the dark, I will cling to that Light this Christmas. Like so many before me, I will pray with all my heart:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Amen.

P.S. Here is another prayer I like for peace, a peace that starts with me.

Season of the Small

Mother & Child

Photo credit: Andy Magee

Christmas will be here before we know it!

For me, ironically, that means I need to fight to keep my eyes on what really matters, on my faith. As I’ve discussed before, my inclination and temptation is to stressHow will I get everything done? What if this doesn’t go perfectly and I wreck the family holiday? I’ve also been struggling with recurring migraines lately, adding to my feelings of feeling weak, small, unready for such a big occasion.

But here’s the thing: Christmas is for the small, for the humble. That was what Mary couldn’t believe when the angel told her, what she later recounted with joy: that God was going to lift up those who could not lift themselves up, who were downtrodden and forgotten and unnoticed by the wider world.

Underneath all the shininess and the tinsel, underneath the prophecy and the stars and the angels, we’re talking about a tiny, unassuming child born in a barn. A mother staring at her firstborn son with bliss. Those holiest of moments, as quiet as a still small voice calling my name.

When I read the Christmas story again in Luke, I see small-town figures, people  whose lives were not glorious and grand. A teenage mother. A shamed fiancée. A barren older woman. A humiliated temple servant.

All of them leading small lives wrapped up in the largest mystery.

As my friend Tonia says, it’s okay to be small. It’s good, in fact. Let’s own feeling small and weak and unready this Christmas, and allow the tiny miracle to infect our lives, just as it happened that very first time.

Strengthen Your Brothers: The Fine Tradition of Epic Fail

Epic FailSeriously, why do Christians have this reputation for wanting to be perfect? For needing everything to be squeaky clean and unblemished?

I’m not saying it’s an undeserved reputation, either. So often I myself succumb to the temptation to make my life look better than it is, to pretend I’ve got it all figured out.

Why do we Christians do this?

I think it’s because we’ve been screwing it up from the very beginning.

I mean, really, read the New Testament. Particularly the Gospel of Mark. The first followers of Jesus were generally terrible at following him, even the apostles. They misunderstood his parables and his instructions. They doubted him constantly and abandoned him at the first sign of trouble. They itched for him to give them earthly power and justify the violence they wanted to commit.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Gospels are especially critical toward Peter, sharing all the gory details of how and why he let his Lord and Teacher down.  We all know the story of how he rashly promised he would never betray Jesus, but would follow him even to the point of death, followed by three outright denials that he had ever heard of him before the day had even begun.

What a great person to name as the Rock you’ll build your future Church on, right? I mean, what was Jesus thinking?

I was reading the Gospel of Luke today, the part where Jesus tells Peter he knows all about this future betrayal. And here’s the part that blows my mind, the part I never noticed before: not only has Jesus forgiven Peter ahead of time, he’s already thinking of how the betrayal can be redeemed. In other words, he’s already thinking of how Peter’s stupid, callous, thoughtless action can be the source of future glory.

Read for yourself what he says in Luke’s Gospel: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Did you catch that? Jesus knows Simon/Peter is going to experience intense temptation, and he knows Peter will give in, but the whole time, Jesus will be rooting for him. In fact, he’s already prayed for him ahead of time that he won’t be completely overcome, that he’ll still have it in him to turn around and follow Jesus again. And when he does, he can use it to strengthen other disciples when they, too, struggle and fail.

This is such an important quality for a leader. No wonder Jesus desires it for Peter. Peter’s humble repentance for his failure will make him capable of more compassion toward other flawed people. Not only that, it will give him practical experience of how to turn around when he’s tempted to wallow in failure, and he’ll be more able to help others turn around too.

I used to hate reading the Bible because it had so many screwed up people in it. I asked myself how these people could possibly be held up as moral examples.

And then, one day, the light bulb went on: the people in the Bible aren’t moral examples, except for Jesus. Everyone in the Bible except for Jesus made mistakes, sometimes huge mistakes, even if they were very close to God (hello, King David). Not only did God love them through all their inherent flaws and stupid mistakes, God also hatched a plan to save them from the horrible cycle of sin and guilt. The plan to redeem us, make us new, turn our ashes to new beautiful life, has been unfolding since we humans entered this crazy world.

Are we perfect? Never. At least, not in this lifetime. But through it all, God blesses us and constantly roots for us to turn back in the right direction. And when we do that, God will help us use the memory of our worst mistakes to strengthen our brothers and sisters.

10 Counter-cultural Ways to Rejoice This Christmas Season

“Sorry, I just can’t enjoy Christmas. I feel like I’m not good enough, like I don’t have enough to give.”

“Aww, we don’t care about that. That’s not what it’s about. Can’t you try to relax, forget about the things that stress you, and enjoy being with us? Can’t that be your gift to us?”

I asked these questions of my dad when I was home for Christmas from college several years ago, and now my own family members ask them of me. It’s weird to realize that my first instinct during the Christmas season is not to rejoice, but to worry, stress, and focus on my flaws and failures.

And when I do that, I tend to panic and buy stuff in a desperate attempt to look shiny, perfect, and put-together. This plays right into the hands of the consumer culture that wants to rule my heart and mind.

But like Jesus said, you can only obsess over one thing at a time. I can either go into a Charlie Brown-style monologue (“I know nobody likes me… why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize that fact?”) or I can praise God for making me exactly the way I am and invading my messy world with holiness. I can either worry or praise; I can’t do both.

So as Christmas draws nearer, here are some ways I’ll try to keep my focus on what really matters.

1. Rather than focusing on feelings that I don’t have enough to give, I can thank God for all that I have been given. The fact that I can share, even in a humble, imperfect way, is itself a gift.

2. Rather than focusing on buying stuff, I can remember to ask for the best gifts of all, things only God can give: a peaceful heart, family, world.

3. Rather than berating myself when I do inevitably get stressed, I can ask for the gifts of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. God, who gave himself to us in Jesus, would surely love to give me those things as well.

4. Rather than absently bumping into other people in stores as I cruise for bargains, I can look up, meet their eyes, and smile.

5. Rather than filling my life with activities that leave no time left over for the people around me, I can realize what a lasting gift it is to slow down, listen to my loved ones, and strengthen my connections with them.

6. Rather than turning a blind eye to the injustice around me, I can choose to look it head-on, all the crazy brokenness of our world, do what I can to change it, and keep on rejoicing, knowing that everything is being made new.

7. Rather than feeling anxious that I’ll be given a gift far better than the one I give in return, I can choose to remember how little I deserve all I’ve been given anyway. Then I can accept the gift with overflowing joy and thanksgiving that will bless the giver too!

8. Rather than feeling like there’s not time enough for everything I “need” to get done, I can give thanks that I get to experience Christmas another year and look for the gifts of the moment.

9. Rather than worrying that I’ll do something wrong and ruin other people’s holiday, I can celebrate the fact that I have people in my life who love me and forgive me my flaws, mirroring God’s grace to me.

10. Rather than focusing on some shiny idol of perfection, I can remember that Jesus was born into this very dark, messy world, in a barn for heaven’s sake. Through all our imperfections, he loved us perfectly.

And he still does. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Monastic Value of the Month: Living in the Abandoned Places of Empire

Inner City Angels mural, a pastel drawing on wall

(Photo credit: Roberrific)

So as I recently shared, I’m reflecting this year on the twelve core values of the New Monastics. Perhaps you are asking yourself who these people are and why I care about their values.

Well, my basic definition is this: New Monastics are laypeople who are trying to live out monastic values in the modern world. I guess the term itself usually applies to Protestants move (since monasticism, and laypeople adopting monastic values, is nothing new for Catholics), but it’s a welcoming movement for anyone in the Church. There is a lot of diversity among New Monastic communities, and disagreement is fine, as long as it’s respectful. They do have some official values, which I really like, and I plan to do my own take on them.

But why am I personally so drawn to monastic values? That’s another good question. I haven’t ever lived in community, per se, and as with any non-mainstream lifestyle, it’s hard to fight the tide of the greater culture alone. I don’t even do hospitality on a large scale too much anymore due to the small size of my living space. And yet I do feel communal life is something I ought to seek after as a Christian, even though it won’t look the same for me as it does for others. I need to remember I’m not in this thing alone, that every single disciple is my family, and that we can work to help, encourage, and exhort each other as travelers on the Way. (I’m hoping this blog will eventually help me form such a community of encouragement in its own way.)

So the value I’ll be focusing on this December is “living in the abandoned places of empire.” But what does this mean, and what does it mean for me?

For most New Monastics, this means they form their communities in abandoned parts of the inner city, places other people have long ago abandoned as hopeless. The New Monastics figure that Jesus has always hung out in such places. (Remember what Nathaniel said when he learned the area Jesus called home: “Nazareth?! Can anything good come from there?”) They’re not just there for some condescending short-term service project; many of them put down roots for good, seeking to learn from their less privileged neighbors as well as use their privilege for good within the new community.

As for me, I have made my home in the city, but it’s a pretty darn safe city overall, and my neighborhood is beautiful, quite a desirable place to live. I walk to and from work each day, often in the dark, with no fear for my safety. My lifestyle is fairly humble out of necessity, but not more so than that of many of my friends, and I certainly enjoy a certain amount of luxury. Nor does my day job have anything straightforwardly to do with serving the poor or bettering the community.

On the one hand, I want to grow more comfortable with spending time in abandoned places, places others have deemed ugly and unsafe and worthless, and seeing the beauty and eternal worth of the people who live there. I want to be a true friend to the poor, and I know I have a lot to figure out in this area. On the other hand, fixing up an inner-city “abandominium” as a long-term home is definitely not the only way to grow in compassion for the poor. Nor should it be – Christians live diverse lives and that should absolutely be encouraged!

So how can I appreciate and build up places the Empire rejects in my life as it is now? Here are some thoughts.

1. Support and uplift poor communities in my city with my skills, money, and time, and make concrete goals to do this more and more in my life.

Examples: I can use my skills as a student and teacher to help teach literacy (and strive to do it respectfully, always acknowledging my students have much to teach me). I can donate my time and money to local organizations that help the poor find peace, renewal, and health. When people approach me on the street to ask for money or other help, I can respond to them with kindness rather than ignore them, even if I’m unable to give them what they ask for or I think it’s not wise.

2. Spend time with others who are ignored or despised by the world, affirming they are truly valuable to God and to me.

Examples: I can seek out friendships and conversations with those who feel different or lonely and see what they have to offer that others are missing out on. I can spend time in places that are often unlovely and lonely, like nursing homes, and try to ease others’ burdens by listening and being present.  When I see someone getting attacked on the internet or in person for taking an unpopular stance, I can extend my unconditional support for them as a person, even when I disagree.

3. Refuse to accept the (often very subtle) imperial mindset that wealth, success, physical beauty, health, youthfulness, etc. are the best indicators of true worth.  See things in terms of the values of God’s upside-down kingdom instead.

Examples: I can learn to better accept myself for who I am and choose not to obsess over how successful I appear to others (this is pretty huge for me). I can likewise encourage others to be who they are and show them unconditional love when they experience failure by worldly standards. I can create spaces online and in person where people can lay down the ideological burdens cultural empire puts on us all.

Of course, like I said before, it’s hard to do these things, or any countercultural things, alone. We need community. I’m very grateful to be part of a church community that places a high amount of emphasis on questioning the values of the greater culture and trying to see things God’s way instead. I’m also grateful for the many mentors I have, both in person and in books (I don’t take nearly enough advantage of them!). And I am grateful for you, my friends and readers. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can strive to live out this value better together.

What does “living in the abandoned places of empire” mean to you? How do you do this in your everyday life? How would you like to grow in this area? What aspects of this subject would you like me to explore in more depth this month?

My Plan for a Red Letter Year

Happy Advent, everyone! Hard to believe it’s here already. It’s the beginning of a new year for the Church, a new cycle through the liturgical seasons, and the perfect time to discern where Jesus is calling me to go this year.

So I’m listening, trying to figure out how to follow him more closely. Lately, it’s become clear to me that there are a lot of voices easier for me to hear than his. I’ve been conforming to the ways of the world instead of being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need to listen to the Spirit, a still small voice which is often so hard to hear, and not harden my heart to it.

I’m feeling called to do a few simple things intensely this year. I was just reading another wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. The book gives guidelines for building a spiritual life that can move you from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. The basic elements of spiritual life, according to Nouwen, are three:

1. Reading of the Word/Scripture

2. Silent prayer

3. Spiritual guidance/direction

Something clicked when I read Nouwen’s words. I’m being called to focus on all of these things right now, things that may seem basic but which I still struggle to embrace consistently and prayerfully. I want to form small, sustainable good habits this year (15 minutes of prayer, a psalm before bed, a letter written to a spiritual mentor) that can grow and invade my whole life like a mustard tree from a tiny seed, like swelling dough from invisible yeast.

I don’t want these guidelines to be burdensome for me. My New Year’s resolutions often are, often have a subtle tone of Be better this time! No, listening to Jesus in the Word, in silence, in the voices of respected teachers, should help me lay down my burdens and be healed.

Even as I work on basics, the small things, I’m also feeling called to stretch myself. Doing things that scare me is the true test of my faith, and I want to be engaged with the world, like Jesus was. So in addition to my more personal, internal efforts, I’m also going to try this year to engage issues of justice in a peaceful, respectful, caring way that embodies my Christian values.

To guide my thoughts and actions and writings about justice, I plan to use the lovely little book Common Prayer: Pocket Edition. Every month, this book gives a value of the New Monastic movement to focus on, to read about, and practical ways to put faith into action (as the book puts it, “becoming the answer to our prayers”). The value for December is “living in the abandoned places of empire” – a pretty appropriate meditation, I think, as we go deeper into that Empire-led season of consumerism.

Again, my aim in all this shouldn’t be political correctness or alleviated feelings of guilt, but rather a commitment to listen more closely to those red-letter words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and not just to listen, but also to act.

I hope you’ll enjoy the ride this year, and as always, thank you for journeying with me as I seek to fall ever more in love with Jesus.

As we enter the season of Advent, do you have any thoughts about how you want to grow spiritually in the coming year?