The Power of Lament

Guest post by Ellie Roscher

Meet Joe. Joe was a fifteen-year old who was randomly placed in my sophomore Hebrew Scripture class. He walked in disheveled, out of uniform and groggy every morning. He sat in the back, slouched, and never raised his hand. I have learned that instead of becoming offended by a kid like Joe, it helps to get curious. When I would ask Joe questions, he would not be rude or mean, he was just slow to light up or offer me much. He said, “Religion is not my thing.”

Toward the end of the term, we studied lament as prayer. I would read my students lament Psalms and play them songs that had lament lyrics. I find that most teenagers are afraid to call God out, to get angry or be sad or blame God. That fear often leads to distance, apathy and resentment. We talked about lament as possibly the last relevant form of prayer. In prayer we ask for things a lot, or sometimes give thanks, but we rarely offer anger. I assigned my students to write a lament to God. I told them to scream, cry, doubt, throw whatever they had at God. God can handle it. Anger is less offensive than apathy. It shows a step toward having an authentic relationship with God.

On days that big assignments are due, I have students share projects with the class. They only need to share what they feel comfortable sharing, but on lament day, Joe raised his hand for the first time. He began to read his lament, filled with raw, honest “Why” questions, aloud in front of his twenty-five classmates. We learned that his favorite aunt had died unexpectedly while she was pregnant at age thirty-five. One page in, his voice got high, his chin started to shake, and heads dropped in reverence as he began to sob. He started again, only to break down twice more. Determined to finish, he would rub his eyes on the sleeve of his black hooded sweatshirt and try his voice again. We gave him space to lament. When he finished, we sat in silence, but it did not feel awkward. The room felt full with God. I thanked him for sharing, for being brave enough to lament, for teaching the class better than I ever could.

When my prayer life starts to feel like a chore, I take a look at how I am praying.  Prayer does not always have to be on our knees with our heads down and our hands folded.  John Lewis said, “When you pray, move your feet,” meaning that true prayer leads to social action.  I have to remember that in order to pray, I must first learn how to listen.  Our whole life is a prayer, an answer to the grace God gave us in life.  When I remember that, my relationship with God gets a new spark again.

How do you pray?

Have you ever used lament as prayer?

When have you heard God unexpectedly in your day?

Gospel Reflection for November 13th, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus said, “To those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing; even what they have will be taken away.”
Matthew 25.29

The moral of this Sunday’s parable seems counter-intuitive to the Gospel messages to which we are most accustomed. What happened to “the last shall be first and the first shall be last?” What about, “Blessed are the meek?” Is Jesus moral compass acting like a yo-yo?

This parable urges us to see in the amount of money all that God entrusts to us in giving us life, unique gifts, and family and friends whose lives we share. Jesus calls us to multiply the gifts entrusted to us.

What is one of the most valuable ways you have invested your life energies?

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Violence and Human Dignity

How do you define violence? What violence are you exposed to in your community?

Guest Post from Claire Bishoff in reflection of Matthew 22:34-40

Until very recently, I did not think much about violence. I was confident that my only exposure to it came through the occasional act of violence I saw in a movie or television show.

Then in a girls’ discussion group I was leading, the topic of sexual harassment came up. The young women told stories about having crude things yelled at them by strangers when they were out for a jog; answering the phone, only to hear heavy breathing on the other end; avoiding the hallway at school where a few popular boys would sit and “grade” the girls’ looks as they walked by; and being touched inappropriately at school, church, and parties by boys they thought were their friends. As the stories gushed forth, the young women were amazed that they were not the only one who had faced harassment. Many had never talked about these incidents, afraid that people would not believe them or that they would be blamed for what had happened to them.

Then one young woman said something I will never forget: “I would rather have someone hit me than harass me like this. Bruises heal, but it is hard to feel good about yourself when someone treats you like an object, not a person. Plus, if there was a bruise, then people would believe I was being bothered and might even help me do something about it.”

These young women’s stories helped me realize that physical violence is not the only kind of violence. Anything that demeans another person, that denies their human dignity as made in the image of God, is violent. If this is the definition of violence, then all of us encounter a lot more violence that we might think. If this is the definition of violence, then it is harder to separate “violent” people from the rest of us. Let those among us who have never taken away the humanity of another person through rude comments, tasteless jokes, or simply staying silent while others behave this way, throw the first stone.

This is not to excuse violence because everyone acts this way at times. Rather, it is to sound a call for all of us to be more aware of our involvement in cycles of violence. Violence does not just happen in “bad neighborhoods” or countries half-way around the world. Violence happens everywhere, thus it is the job of everyone to think creatively about and to act courageously for promoting peace between people of different ages, races, nations, religions, sexualities, and political persuasions.

This is at the heart of our lives as Christians. In this week’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus teaches us that the most basic laws are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, two forms of love that are integrally connected. The more we love God, the more we are able to see the humanity in others, even those who are radically different from, even those we do not like. The more we are able to love our neighbors, the more we know and love God, as we encounter God through them. This journey of love is truly a journey of a lifetime.

What is one thing you can do this week that demonstrates your:

love for God?
love for someone radically different from you?
love for yourself?

What one thing can you do this week to make sure that the human dignity of others is not compromised?

God speaks to me through television, movies, and music

God speaks to me through television, movies, and music. To put it that way makes it sound sort of creepy, as if I actually hear the voice of God coming through my laptop or iPod. What I mean is that, at times, I learn something about God, myself, and creation through these sources. Often this happens when I am least expecting it, or when I do not even know that I need help or am looking for answers.

Throughout the Harry Potter era, religious communities and authorities have warned young people against reading these books. Despite these warnings, many youth (and adults!) have read these books and have heard God speak through them. I include myself in this group. Readers of the Potter books have learned about the power of friendship, love, and sacrifice for the greater good. They have been reminded that young people can make a difference in the world. Many have even found connections between Harry Potter and Jesus, helping them better understand the Gospel narrative in terms that relate to their lives. Beyond being enjoyable reads, the Harry Potter books have invited readers to consider the big questions—theological questions—about good and evil, sacrifice, and the meaning of life. In this way, these books have been a place where Catholics young and old alike have met God.

There is a fancy theological term for seeing God in all parts of our world—sacramental imagination. In other words, many Catholics see the world through God-colored glasses, since we believe that the world and all of its events and people and things are somewhat like God. Because of this similarity between God and the world, all the events and people and things of world have the potential to be revelatory of God. We believe that God is involved in the world, not absent from it. We believe that God teaches us about God and ourselves continually, not only in Jesus Christ and the sacraments. Because of this, Catholics do not need to be afraid of reading books like Harry Potter or listening to popular music.

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about tenants of a vineyard who are not being faithful renters. Jesus uses this parable to challenge the religious officials of his day to be faithful renters themselves, that is, people who serve God and those in need. Today this parable encourages us to ask what it means to be faithful renters in our world, to be tenants of the Earth. We live in a media culture; Twitter and Facebook along with television, movies, and music are an integral part of our lives. How can we be faithful renters in a media culture? Is there a middle ground we can walk between rejecting popular culture and embracing it wholeheartedly? How can we engage media culture faithfully and critically? How can we learn about God and ourselves and our world through media culture? How can we bring our faith to the everyday activities of reading, watching, and listening?

Has God even spoken to you through media culture? Share your story here.

How can you use the tools of media culture to build up the kingdom of God?


Yesterday as its editor, I worked on the Sunday by Sunday issues for Advent, Christmas, and after. The Two Feet feature in the issue for the 1st Sunday of Advent recommends observing World AIDS Day, December 1, by visiting UNAIDS. The World Health Organization initiated this day to reduce the shame and spread of AIDS. The AIDS quilt project to remember those who died grew out of this awareness building. At UNAIDS I found current statistics. To date world wide, 60 million have died.

In 2000 the United Nations made halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS one of its eight Millennium Development Goals to achieve by 2015, a year drawing near. New infections are down. Anti-retrovirus drugs allow some 33 million people to live with HIV, five million more surviving than in 2005. About two million people still die each year. Sixteen million children have lost their parents.

A colleague emailed a professor friend finishing up her last two weeks on a Fulbright grant in Zambia. The numbers above are just statistics to most of us in the U.S. but in Zambia it’s daily life. The friend writes,

“The Fulbright evaluation asks what cultural events I attend. All I could reply was to note all the funerals I have attended or contributed money to. So many adults dying—AIDS is always alluded to but never acknowledged.”

How to Help the Hungry

Bread for the World calls attention to new hunger data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released September 7. For the third year in a row a record high 14.5% of American households suffer food insecurity. What is worse, the USDA reports 25% of African-American and 26% of Hispanic households experience food insecurity compared with 10.8% of white households. That’s a lot of folks having trouble putting food on the table.

Sisters Joan and Therese with David BeckmanLast fall I interviewed David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, when he received the World Food Prize for his leadership of this Christian lobbying organization over the past for 20 years. He left a post as an economist at the World Bank to become an advocate for far less salary for the hungry. Beckmann combines three callings in one in his work. He is a Lutheran pastor, an economist who analyzes hunger needs and program effectiveness, and an advocate for the least among us.

In my time as a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph leadership team I got calls from folks that needed food. And, yes, we discovered a group that scammed us for baby formula. Like all who tend the backdoors of rectories or convent, we had to make up our minds about whose need was genuine. Today’s figures testify that unemployment is keeping need high for millions who are using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other nutrition programs to get by.

Bread for the World offers us Christians help in protecting food programs for the least as Congress battles to cut the national deficit. Beckmann urges Christians who give to food pantries to also write to their representatives in Congress. According to Beckmann in his book Exodus from Hunger, all the faith-based feeding programs combined provide only 6% of the assistance needed in our nation. Government helps us do together what we can’t do for the hungry as individual families and parishes. Investigate joining in the work with this ecumenical, nonpartisan organization:

Click here for Bread for the World’s U.S. hunger facts.

A Labor Day Blessing

“Prosper for us the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17)

When all are gathered, the leader lights a center candle and begins.

LEADER: Christ, our Light, has called us to follow his example.
ALL: May our work this week be done in his light and shed his love on those we meet.

LEADER: Let us pause to reflect on how our work can aid others.
Brief pause for reflection.
LEADER: Lord, prosper for us the work of our hands.
ALL: Bless those who work with us.

LEADER: If the Lord is not with us, we labor in vain (Ps 127:1).
ALL: Lord, prosper for us the work of our hands.

PSALM 90:1-2, 13-17
LEADER: Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
ALL: Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

LEADER: Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
ALL: Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

LEADER: Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.
ALL: Prosper for us the work of our hands.

LEADER: We work to provide for what we need.  Jesus teaches us to pray and trust that God’s work is to provide what we truly need.

READER: A reading from Luke 11:2-4, 9-13

Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Abba God, hallowed be your Name! May your reign come. Give us today tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the Test’.
I tell you, keep asking and you’ll receive; keep looking and you’ll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted.  What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Abba give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?

LEADER: As partners with God who share God’s work in and for our world, let us pray that God will bless all workers who better the world through their labor.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That the work of the human community, whether in homes or factories, in service or scientific professions, in roles of leadership or in roles of directly caring for others, may bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That God will bless those who seek work but cannot find it, who are homeless or unable to work, who have no way to obtain daily bread by their own efforts; and that those who have enough share the fruits of their labor with their sisters and brothers in need.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That God will bless all those whose lives are put at risk by their labor and those who serve their brothers and sisters through the night hours.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: Let us pray with thanks for being the work of God’s hands.
ALL: With thanks for the work we have been given to do, we ask that all who do work begin in God’s inspiration, continue in God’s care, and end in God’s love. Amen.

from Blessing Rites for Christian Lives by Shawn Madigan, CSJ.

Exploring Recent Theologies of God

Reading theology is one way to keep faith. Study often leads to insight and sometimes prayer. Theology helps me find words for my small graced moments and recognize the broad trends in which we live.

So I’m teaching a theology course this fall on Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum 2008). Sister Elizabeth writes this readable book for seekers, doubters keeping faith with their questions, and people nourishing others through teaching and preaching. That takes in a good many of us. It’s the short course on the theologies of the past 60 years.

A lively national dialogue has followed the March 2011 U.S. Catholic bishops’ critique of Quest and Sister Elizabeth’s response. The Committee on Doctrine critiques Quest for not starting with scripture and the Church’s teachings. Sister Elizabeth insists she has written from faith for faith.

Methods differ. To talk about God, we have to make analogies, comparisons. Commonly, many of us construct our idea of God out of the perfections of all that we know as good. God is transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, everlasting, all-loving, all-merciful, unchanging. In this method God is impassable, unable to suffer, because suffering is a negative. Many of us wind up with the question, “If God is all powerful, how can God let bad things happen to good people? “ Or, “How could God permit the Holocaust?”

The contemporary theologies that Quest surveys wrestle with such current questions. In responding to the Committee on Doctrine, Sister Elizabeth talks about lecturing for the South African Catholic Bishops conference in 1987 before apartheid ended. Going in, she assumed the impassibility of God.

When she lectured on the cross, she included the theologies of Edward Schillebeeckx and Johannes Baptist Metz, who hold “God is compassionate toward those who suffer but suffering does not touch the being of God.” She also presented the thinking of Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothy Soelle, who wrestled with the Holocaust and “who hold in different ways that God indeed suffers on the cross and beyond.”

At the end of the lecture Sister Elizabeth asked which theologies resonated with audience. Overwhelmingly these priests and bishops who grieved the killings and violence against them, who mourned and buried too many dead, who faced terrible limits on their lives raised their hands for Moltmann and Soelle. They had experienced God suffering with them, accompanying them in their horrors. As Sister Elizabeth explored the scriptures, she found the bible bears out their experience that God sees and hears pain and come to liberate, for example, in the Exodus.

The Second Vatican Council in its Document on Revelation (Dei Verbum) describes the gospel making progress in the world in three ways—the study and experience of believers (that’s all of us) and the preaching of bishops—or as the document itself says:

  • Through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts.
  • From the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.
  • From the preaching of those who have received along with the right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (#8).

The gospel advances through our study and spiritual experience as well as through officials of the Church. This is a call to listen one another’s insights into words that will nourish our faith today.

If you are close enough to St. Paul, Minnesota, join our seminar and if not join the conversation here online. Start a conversation where you live. Gather a circle of friends who want to keep faith. I’ll let you know what is happening in our group.

Registration Information: 

The course is offered at the Hedgerow Initiative at the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St Paul, MN.

Click here for the syllabus for Here Be Dragons: A Dialogue with Quest for the Living God

You can sign up for the course here — $220 for the entire series or $25 per session. Register for as many as you can attend.

Order the book from Good Ground Press (800-832-5533 or 651-690-7010), Continuum, or wherever you find religious books.

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New Martin Luther King Jr. Statue Dedicated This Week

MLK memorial
Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation Creative Commons License

A guest post from Good Ground Press, Co-Publisher, Therese Sherlock, CSJ

A new statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was dedicated on the Washington Mall this week.  It got me thinking about the civil rights struggle.  Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., led freedom marchers one week and the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses the next.  It seemed like our nation was going to be torn apart.

But it wasn’t.  Instead historians found that the common man and common woman were being converted.  In his book, There Goes My Everything, Jason Sokol focuses first on the white southerners who opposed integration and voter registration, whose names we know all too well—Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Bull Connor, Sheriff Clark.  But he also gives voice to the confusion, mixed feelings and doubts of many whose names we don’t know.  And many of them changed their minds.

One of Sokol’s examples is a New Orleans woman, the mother of nine.  She supported segregation, but defied the boycott of a newly integrated school because she couldn’t bear the thought of her four grade school children at home with her, making noise and getting into trouble.  After weeks of abuse from fellow whites, this woman said she didn’t feel any freer than the blacks and from then on fought on their side.  The dire threats that the world would end if the races mixed never did materialize.

So what about now?  What can we salvage from our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan?  What will help a neighborhood whose murder rate goes up and up?  How can we learn from new immigrants rather than fear them?

The edge where things seem to be breaking down may be the edge where new growth can come.  What will happen if each of us tries to prune away some old, dead ideas or habits of thinking and speaking?  Poke around a little bit in the spot.  What signs of life are showing?  What looks like it might just work?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below and share this with your friends.

A prayer for the victims of Hurricane Irene

You will have pain and affliction,
trouble and strain and doubt. But you shall
not be overcome and all shall be well.
Yes, all shall be well, and all will be well,
and you shall see yourself that all manner
of things shall be well.

Julian of Norwich

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