Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Last week, Gwynedd Mercy University held a retirement celebration for Sister Kati McMahon, RSM, our Vice President of Mission Integration, who is stepping down after serving her alma mater in myriad capacities for 36 years.  I was privileged to give the reflection at the prayer service that began the celebration.  (More accurately, I unabashedly seized for myself the opportunity to give the reflection.)  The reflection was entitled, “Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati.”  There’s wisdom here for everyone, so–to continue to honor her as she deserves–I’m sharing my words here.

I hope you have a Sister Kati in your life, but if you don’t, please borrow however much of our own Sister Kati’s sage advice as you can use!

Christine

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Kati has been my supervisor for 15 years, which I’m pretty sure makes me one of the luckiest people in the room. Because, unless put off by vacation, hospitalization, or Middle States, I have gotten to sit down with Kati once a week for fifteen years, to talk about work and life and ministry. So despite the title of this reflection (which I just couldn’t help), this is not a roast or even exactly a tribute. Today’s gathering is a prayer of gratitude and blessing, and so I want to reflect briefly on the wisdom I am grateful to have learned from Kati, wisdom that I hope will be a blessing to many of you as well.

1) Begin with the end in mind.  (Yes, I know it’s really Stephen Covey!)

Kati can tell you how much I came kicking and screaming to the practice of assessment. But I have to say, I now have a little internalized Kati voice in my head, which is forever asking “What is our desired outcome?” I ask it not only when sitting down to do planning in campus ministry, but when making an agenda for a parish meeting, planning a dinner outing with friends, even heading into the occasional argument with my sweetheart. (Believe me, there’s nothing Porter likes more than hearing me ask, “What’s the desired outcome of this conversation?”)

From S. Kati, I learned that to begin with the end in mind is the only way to make sure you get where you want to go. As we are always on the brink of something, as a university and as individuals, it is always worth pausing, to make sure that we have set our sights on the right thing, before we set out.

2) Respect the process.

I have watched S. Kati craft incredibly collaborative processes for things she probably could have sat down with a pencil and done all by herself in a couple of hours. One of these processes involved over 200 people, and took the better part of two academic years. Was the outcome better than it would have been if she’d just done it herself? Maybe. But it certainly had more buy-in. (Which is—see previous point—one of the desired outcomes.) S. Kati taught me that it doesn’t matter how fast you get there, if you leave people behind. And so, as we set out to do new things, let’s always remember to look around, see who’s not with us, and find a way to invite them in.

3) Be careful what you are busy about.

I can be a very fussy person. I fuss about work; I fuss about church; I fuss about family. For the last 15 years, S. Kati has been on the receiving end of a lot of that fussing. And here is what she taught me. If I am fussing about something that I cannot possibly do anything about, that is a waste of emotional energy—not to mention brain space. And so I have learned to ask myself, is this situation in my circle of influence? Will my involving myself in this effect any kind of positive change? If not, I shouldn’t be busy about it. And even if it is in my circle of influence, and I can make a positive change, it’s still not worth being “busy” about, when instead I could simply pray about it then contribute what I can. Just think how much more peaceful and productive we would all be if we could remember not to be busy about things that are none of our business! Which brings me to . . .

4) Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths.

I arrived at this job 15 years ago with most of the skills I needed to be a good campus minister and maybe—maybe—half the skills I needed to be a good administrator. S. Kati was incredibly patient about helping me grow, acquire new skills, and learn from my mistakes. But she was also realistic about the fact that no one is good at everything, and that while chiseling at a block of marble sometimes reveals a beautiful statue underneath, jackhammering away at it just makes a mess. She understood that at some point, the energy that we could exert trying to get better at what we’re bad at could be much better spent doing the things we actually love and are good at. So, the next time you’re running up against the stone wall of your own limitations, think of S. Kati, consider whether it might just be time to stop, turn around, and run with your strengths instead.

5) Show up.

Kati shows up. As Vice President of Mission, she shows up for funerals. As Vice President of Student Services, she showed up for games (and probably funerals too). She shows up for events. She shows up for supervision, week after month after year. She has not yet learned to bi- or tri-locate, so sometimes she can’t be there physically. But she shows up with grateful emails after a job well done, and she shows up with holiday wishes when the rest of us are just focused on getting out of the building. At a time when the world is only moving faster, and when a personal touch is so desperately needed, we would all do well to remember those two simple words. Whenever we can, show up.

6) Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own.

Kati’s body has not always been her friend.   Okay, that’s not really true. S. Kati’s body has rarely been her friend. She would say that she suffers from an excess of Mercy hospitality—a body that flings wide the door for everything from sinus infection to arterial obstruction. Despite how cruddy Kati may be feeling on any given day, in my experience, she has never allowed her pain to diminish her compassionate response to the pain of others. She doesn’t pull out her Likert scale of suffering to assess whether you merit her empathy. In this she embodies CS Lewis’ definition of humility: not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. That kind of humility flows graciously from S. Kati’s merciful heart. And speaking of Mercy . . .

7) Remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

More than any other person, S. Kati has helped me understand that Mercy is not just about being nice, or being friendly, or making people feel better (though sometimes it involves all those things). Mercy is about wading deep enough into a distressing situation to know what people really need, and having the courage to respond in practical ways. Sometimes people need a second chance, and sometimes they need accountability, and sometimes they need a fierce advocate, and none of that is fluffy. S. Kati has shown me the face of Mercy, in all its tough and tender manifestations, and for that I will be forever grateful.  

Begin with the end in mind. Respect the process. Be careful what you are busy about. Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths. Show up. Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own. And remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

If we can hold onto even some of these things, as people and as an institution, then S. Kati’s legacy here at Gwynedd Mercy will be us. And that is really something to be grateful for.

Finding God at My Feet

Snow has begun to fall in Philadelphia.  After a flurry of morning errands, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, savoring a third cup of coffee.  On my campus, only “essential personnel” are working.  The people who plow the snow and salt the walks—as well as those who feed our students and who ensure their safety—are all on the job.

Already this morning I’ve interacted with so many working people:  the postal service clerk who accepted the package I mailed; the man at Acme who sold me salmon for tonight’s dinner and the lady who rang it up; the woman at the corner bakery where I got some fresh bagels.  They are all at jobs from which they will have to make their way home in weather, having provided services which were lovely and convenient for me to receive, though hardly essential.  

And that’s not even to mention the largely invisible (to me) network of people hard at work doing all sorts of critical jobs:  nurses and doctors and police officers and firefighters and utility workers, to name just a few.  

I know that I haven’t posted anything in a while, so this seems like a good moment to share the chapter from my book that addresses the dignity of work and worker.  This goes out with my thanks to anyone who’s on the job today.  May you be safe, warm, appreciated, and well-compensated!

Chapter 21
Finding God at My Feet

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14

“Shine your shoes, lady?”

I was in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just south of Laredo, Texas, where I was leading a week of spring break service. My students and I were headed back to the border after experiencing the infamous bridge crossing—Mexicans going one way to work, Americans going the other way to shop. At the moment, I was busy pretending not to hear the fellow calling out to me from the street corner.

I am not a person who gets shoeshines. Having bad feet, I buy footwear that’s as practical and supportive as a good friend. And because I accept (yet resent) the fact that I am never going to skip around in pretty little flats or sexy stilettos, I generally ignore my shoes unless they hurt. But there was no ignoring this persistent young man.

“Shine your shoes?” he called again, literally running with his shoeshine kit down the block to catch up with me. “Look at your shoes!” he cried. “I’ll shine them fast, good price!” Only then did I glance at my sturdy black boots. Scuffed and dusty, they looked like something I’d fished out of a dumpster. The man had a point. I acquiesced, and he went to work—right in the middle of the sidewalk.

I was mortified. Standing there with four of my students while this young Mexican man knelt at my feet for what seemed like an eternity, I felt as conspicuous as if I had purchased a giant sombrero with the words frivolous American embroidered across the brim. Unaccustomed to being served in this manner, I prayed that no one had a camera.

Then I noticed something. He was doing a really good job. He polished and buffed vigorously; he was in the zone. The man was a professional, doing his job with flair and efficiency. My shoes had never looked better—even right out of the box.

As a further mortification, I needed to borrow money from a student to pay him—a “good price” being higher than I had expected, but worth every peso.

What lingers from that encounter is confusion about my own discomfort. The inequality I experienced as the young man knelt at my feet could have gone either way. On the one hand, I was a tourist “rich” enough to hire someone to do this menial task for me, and he was a laborer stuck hustling business in the street. But to leave it there would be to deny the dignity of work and worker. To be on the receiving end of his skill was humbling, for he was a good shoe-shiner, and I am a crummy one. He deserved his good price, and my respect. I’m glad he got both.

Think of the many people who provide services for you (trash collector, grocery clerk) and hold them in prayer, one by one. How do you show your gratitude for their good work, and respect for their dignity as children of God?

 

 

Cloud Cover

There’s a picturesque dusting of snow on the evergreen tree outside my window, heralding the arrival of Winter Ordinary Time.  The snow is gratuitous, of course; it’s also Winter Ordinary Time in sunny Florida, and Southern California, and Mexico City, while here in Philadelphia we had our first (and so far, only) crippling snow of the season way back on November 15.

But it’s not snow on my mind today.  It’s clouds.

Twice last week I stumbled across a reference to the “column of cloud” from the Book of Exodus.  As in, “The LORD preceded [the Israelites], in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people” (13:21-22).  This is a thing about which I have not thought in years.  Decades, perhaps.

The first reference I found was in a poem called Passover Remembered by Rev. Alla Bozarth-Campbell, which I spotted while skimming a binder of reflection resources for service experiences.  It caught my eye last Thursday evening, and moved me so much that I copied parts of it into my journal on Friday morning, highlighting the line “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud.”

I am with you in the fire,
and I am with you in the cloud.

The next morning, I glanced at Jesus Calling, which a friend had sent me recently.  My jury’s a bit out on these daily meditations, wildly popular though they are (which may be one reason my snobby little jury is reluctant to weigh in).  There’s something about the language that isn’t quite my cup of tea, but the gift was a very touching surprise from someone I haven’t seen in a long time, so I keep it next to my rocking chair, pick it up regularly, and stay open.

On the morning after I copied and underlined “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud,” the Jesus Calling Scripture of the day included Exodus 33, in which the column of cloud stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses went there to speak privately with the LORD.

Well.  Now the column of cloud officially has my attention.

The column of fire is a pretty good way to describe my last semester.  Finding God in Ordinary Time came out in September, and I blazed my way through book launch events and new retreats and speaking engagements clear through to mid-December.  I had such a sense that God was opening a way before me, and although I began the season anxious about how I would ever juggle it all, I trusted, and persevered, and made it through to Christmas.  I would hop up and take a bow right now, except for one thing.

Right now, I can neither hop nor bow.

Just as my book was launching last fall, I became aware of some discomfort in my knees.  As the pain began to radiate all the way from my lower back to my feet, escalating interventions included new sneakers, chiropractic adjustments, Advil and Aleve, nutritional supplements, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, X-rays, and physical therapy–all to naught.  Walking hurts.  Driving is excruciating.  Stairs are an adventure, and inclines aren’t great either.  Putting on socks  sometimes feels like the accomplishment of the day.

My chiropractor wants me to have an MRI, but my primary care physician (i.e. the one who authorizes insurance coverage) wants me to see a sports medicine doctor first.  So, even though the only team I ever competed on was forensics (speech & debate), I’m taking my middle-aged, non-athletic self to the sports medicine clinic on Thursday.  (They do say mortification is good for the soul.)

What does all this have to do with the column of cloud?

Well, for one thing, I can’t see the way forward; the cloud cover is pretty profound right now.  There are so many things I want to do, so many exciting invitations on my horizon, but I am hobbled, slow, distracted, and worried.  I don’t know what’s wrong.  I don’t know how to make it better.  I would gladly do what it takes if I knew what it took, but I don’t.

Here’s what I do know.  The column of cloud is trying to get my attention as a metaphor, both for guidance and for intimacy with God.

First, guidance: Scripture is reminding me that the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt, not only by means of a blazing fire at night (so exciting!) but also by an obscuring cloud by day.  Day by day.  One foot in front of the other.  Not able to see very far.  Not sure where the journey would end.  But led, nonetheless; the cloud never left its place in front of the people.

In my New Year’s blog post, I pondered the astounding changes 365 days can bring.  I don’t know where I’ll be with this affliction when next January rolls around; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be somewhere else.  I’m choosing to trust that where I’ll be is where God has led me.

Second, intimacy with God:  Sometimes I joke that God must want to say, “We only see each other at work!  Can’t we just hang out?”  I was very focused on work last year, using the hours around the edges of my campus ministry day job to write, edit, and market my book, design retreats, work on talks, keep up this blog, etc. But in these slowed-down days, my morning prayer has gotten better.  It’s so much harder to jump up and do something else; so instead, I’m lingering.  Savoring my coffee.  Watching that before sunrise sky.  Mulling over a Scripture text.  Listening to Taize music.  Pondering a deepened compassion for people who find life difficult—whether for physical or emotional reasons.  Talking some.  Listening more.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to have agenda-less prayer time, but I’m appreciating it.

When the cloud lifts and leads, I’ll move.  Maybe limping.  Maybe leaping.  But until then, I’m going to stay here and see what God has to say.

What is your fire?  What is your cloud?

In this Winter Ordinary Time, may your ordinary days—whether firey or cloudy, painful or  pain-free—be extraordinarily blessed.

 

 

Choices and Mysteries

I’m going to be a great-aunt!

Okay, technically, I’m going to be a really good first cousin twice removed. But since that doesn’t exactly fly off the tongue, and since Holly (the mother-to-be) has always called me her aunt, then great-aunt I shall be to this new little love, coming our way in April: the first child of the next generation in my family.

Holly is the older daughter of my beloved cousin Susan—my best friend since the playpen days—who died when Holly and her sister Maddy were just 20 and 17. Holly’s baby will be named Suzannah, a lovely choice that pays homage to Susan and to Susan’s mother (also Susan) while avoiding the burden of “Susan III” (since she will be neither British royalty nor pope in a parallel universe). And as if that distinction weren’t enough, young Suzannah will go by perhaps the cutest nickname ever: Sookie.

Today is New Year’s Day, as well as (in the Catholic tradition) the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Both observances call us to pondering. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking back to this time last year, marveling at the astounding changes 365 days can bring. Last year, this baby was only a twinkle in God’s eye. Yet, by this time next year, our family will barely be able to remember a time when we were Sookie-less.

So here’s where my mind has been going, as I ponder the child on her way.

  • Sookie would not exist if Holly hadn’t been born (obviously).
  • Holly would not exist if I hadn’t introduced her mother to my housemate, Jeff, when I was a volunteer at Freedom House in Richmond in the late 80’s.
  • I wouldn’t have gone to Richmond after graduation if my college friend Joe hadn’t suggested a “theology club” spring break service project to visit his favorite high school teacher, who had become the Executive Director of Freedom House, where Jeff was already a volunteer.
  • Joe and I would not have been friends if I hadn’t gone to Saint Joseph’s University.
  • I would not have gone to St. Joe’s if my dad hadn’t taught accounting there.
  • Dad wouldn’t have taught accounting if he hadn’t been laid off from a corporate job he hated.
  • He wouldn’t have had the job to lose if he hadn’t majored in accounting at Villanova.
  • He wouldn’t have chosen that major if his mother hadn’t pushed him into it when he came out of college seminary after two years, unsure what to do with his life.

But push my Grandmother did, and major my Dad did; then he took a number of tedious accounting jobs before getting laid off and picking up a night school gig at St. Joe’s, which led to a 32-year satisfying teaching career for him and a faculty scholarship for me, which enabled me to graduate debt-free and go volunteer at a street center in Richmond for a year, where I met Jeff, whom I introduced to Susan, who had Holly, who’s having Sookie. Who apparently owes her existence to a pushy great-great-grandmother–among many, many other things.

We never know what will be the pivot-points in our lives, or how our own choices may create turning points for others. But choose we must, all our days. Some things are matters for discernment. But, as we know too well, which way we turn when leaving the house on any given morning can have as much life-changing impact as our career choice. More importantly, our not-great decisions and even tragic missteps still leave God plenty of room to work, since everything (according to St. Ignatius) has the potential to call forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

The threshold on which each of us stands on this New Year’s Day is the cumulative result of choices—our own and others’—as well as circumstances of no one’s choosing. And so we step across it, trusting that our best and most sincere choices, made in good faith, will lead us home.

As I say in my book: I can only bow before the mystery.

One final note . . . speaking of choices and mysteries . . . Sookie’s mom, Holly, works for a day care center, taking care of other people’s babies. She will have worked there full time for less than a year before the baby is born (for a pittance, by the way–especially relative to what parents pay the Center for their children’s care at her hands).  Not only does she have no paid maternity leave, but they are not even obligated to hold her job, should she happen to need more than one week off after delivery.  They have been very clear about this. It’s a lousy deal, and consequently it’s been hard for her to see a good choice; finances are alarmingly tight. And so, recently, Holly opened her own window, setting up a “Go Fund Me” page to try to finance her maternity leave—the quality time together that every parent and infant deserve.

This is an unusual choice for me in this blog, but the new year calls us to take risks, right?  So I’m just going to put it out there . . . if you are moved to help this mother-to-be (still so sad about the loss of her own mom) to start life well with her daughter, here’s the link to Holly’s Go Fund Me.

And whatever 2019 holds for you, as always: may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

Far from Ordinary

Today is the last day of the Church year: Saturday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time. After six months of green, liturgists are breaking out the purple and pink.  At sundown tonight, it’s Advent.

Advent is a time of preparation, as John the Baptist cries: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!  Step outside church, however, and it’s already secular Christmas: Prepare ye the cards and the gifts! Prepare ye the tree and the lights! Prepare ye the cookies and pies!

Even as I rail against it, I have to acknowledge that I enjoy many of the trappings of secular Christmas, because I’m pretty good at cards, gifts, trees, lights, cookies and pies. (Well maybe not so much with the pies.) Do I have to stop enjoying all these things in order to “do” Advent properly?

Of course not.

But I do have to think about the how and the why of the things I undertake in the next few weeks. Am I doing them compulsively, from a sense of ought? Or am I doing them lovingly, in a spirit of hospitality?

One thing the Advent and Christmas seasons have in common is that they are all about hospitality. We prepare to welcome Christ into our hearts as we prepare to welcome people into our homes. The sweet spot is when we can do both: welcome people into our hearts as well as our homes. That is the essence of hospitality.

When I was in the volunteer community at Freedom House in Richmond some thirty years ago, we used Henri Nouwen’s definition of hospitality to explain what we were trying to do for people experiencing homelessness. Hospitality, Nouwen suggested, is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

I have been thinking a lot about hospitality lately. Who or what requires free space to enter my heart this year? Who or what feels like a “stranger” to me, needing to be befriended?

I have an inkling about some of the answers to these questions, but I want to sit with them a while, pondering them in my rocking chair through the dark mornings of Advent. One thing I do know is that it has to do with change.

Everywhere I go these days, I seem to find myself in conversations about letting go. Letting go of cherished people and places. Letting go of faith communities that no longer feel like family. Letting go of agility and ability through illness and aging. Letting go of titles and roles that once defined identity. 

In all these scenarios, it’s easier to see what’s going than what’s coming. Tempting to cling to what was with nostalgia, and to regard what will be with suspicion.

What would it look like to be hospitable instead? To create a free space in our hearts where a strange and even frightening new aspect of life could enter and become a friend? To allow room for a new relationship or reality to grow within us—intentionally, gradually, peaceably?

In St. Vincent’s choir, my new favorite Christmas song is Friends in Christ, Rejoice. The refrain is simple but powerful: Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw. And that’s the point, really. As Christians we believe that God chose to enter our world in a way no one had imagined: the most vulnerable way possible. And it is still into the vulnerable parts of our lives—and our world—that this God is born, again and again.

Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

And so my prayer for you, this Advent season, is this:

May you create the space you need to be hospitable to yourself.
May you to take time to pause, to ponder, to pray, to notice.
May your hospitality overflow in gracious welcome
  to whoever and whatever will be part of your life in the year to come.
May the God of surprises come to you like no God you had imagined.

And may your far-from-ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.

Christine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Stroll in the Orchard

On October 27, I had the great privilege of giving the keynote address at the 5th Annual Friends of the Newman Center dinner at West Chester University, where I served as Associate Director from 1993 – 2004.  Although I spoke from notes, here is (mostly) what I said . . . asides excepted.  Enjoy!

Tonight’s liturgical readings call us to gratitude, which is fitting, because whenever I think about my eleven years here at the Newman Center, gratitude is the first and last and primary thing that I feel. (Also amazement at how I ever managed to work past 10:00 five nights a week for ten academic years, when all my life I have wanted to be in my PJ’s at 9:00—and now often am!)

There are so many memories in this building, but for the sake of time I promised myself that I would stick to things that happened right here in this room. Liturgical things, certainly, like celebrating the Easter Triduum with so many exceptionally well-trained liturgical ministers, and recording our choir CD, Go Make a Difference. I also remember great service events, like schlepping heavy grocery bags filled with donations for our Thanksgiving outreach. And of course there were fundraisers, like the Great Newman Center Garage Sale, and the BINGO nights when Sara Marks and I worked this room on ROLLER BLADES. (That was before this lovely new floor, obviously.)

But my deepest gratitude, when I think of the Newman Center, is for the opportunity to walk with so many students as they grew in their relationship with God. If there’s a better job description, I don’t know what it is.

In the first chapter of my book, I use the analogy of a complicated sunrise. Not the sunrise of a perfectly clear day, when the sun simply pops over the horizon, nor a completely overcast day, when you can’t even tell when it’s up. Complicated sunrises are those days when you can see the sun’s progress only by its dramatic effects on the clouds. Here’s what I wrote:

I love a complicated sunrise for the same reason I love my job in college campus ministry. Just as the sun is rendered more beautiful by its effect on the clouds, God’s glory shines most clearly when it touches the shadowed parts of people’s lives.

A timid student begins to glow in the warmth of a faith community. Foggy lack of direction gives way to the illuminated path of a discovered call. God’s healing power touches broken places—disappointments, abuses, failures, betrayals—and renders hearts stronger than they were before. People in pain discover that the darkness in their lives does not have to stay dark, and when God’s light reaches those troubled crevices, they are transformed from sources of shame into radiant signs of the divine.

Morning arrives in its own way for each one, as clouds give way to light. I am grateful each time I am awake to see it.

One of the things I am most grateful for–and miss the most about this place–is the hunger that Newman students have:  to know about the faith and to grow in friendship with God.  This seems to be true of Newman ministry nationwide. I am 53 years old, and I’ve spent 44 of those years in some kind of educational setting, but West Chester is the only secular school I’ve ever been affiliated with. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through grad school, and since leaving here I’ve been at Gwynedd Mercy University. Obviously I’m very happy with my own Catholic education (clearly it got me to a good place) and I love where I am now—I so admire the charism of the Sisters of Mercy, their commitment to critical concerns, and the integration of all that into the curriculum and the life of the University. But Newman ministry is special because students at a place like West Chester often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. You go to class and encounter an atheist professor who thinks you’re stupid for being Catholic, and then you head back to your residence hall to deal with the fundamentalist Christian roommate who thinks you’re going to hell for being Catholic!

That’s why it’s so important for there to be a place like this: a safe space where you can be part of community that helps you learn and practice an adult Catholic faith. Not the faith you had when you made your first Communion at age seven or when you were Confirmed at age 12, and not the faith of your parents, but your own, owned, adult Catholic faith. And that is why it is so important that we do this ministry very well.

When I left here and went to Gwynedd Mercy, I knew that the ministry settings were different, but I had no idea how much they would be two totally different jobs . . . that I would go from being, essentially, an associate pastor, to being a college administrator. One of the challenges of being a college administrator was learning to do assessment—a huge task in higher ed. Over and over again I was asked, “How do you know that you’re being effective?” I came kicking and screaming to the world of assessment, once even telling my boss, “Do you know how I’ll know that I did a good job? When I get to heaven and look around and see who else is there!” That’s a joke, of course. But the truth at the center of it is the wisdom contained in that prayer often attributed to St. Oscar Romero but actually written by Bishop Ken Untener: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds that have been planted, knowing they hold future promise.

Campus ministry is about planting and watering and weeding and cultivating and fertilizing; it is not about harvesting. The harvest comes later. Much later. Because how holy you feel on the morning after a retreat–or even how well you can articulate your faith on the night before graduation–is not nearly as important as the way you live your life after you leave this place. The difference that we want to make in students’ lives is for the long haul. So how do we know if we’re doing a good job?

Well, one of the answers is, stick around. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, which means that some of my original students are bona fide middle-aged people now.  I find that one of the blessings of Facebook (though we know its evils as well) is how it has enabled me to stay connected to alumni. When I see the careers you have chosen—how many of you are in ministry, or social work, or counseling, or some other helping profession—and I see the kind of people you are choosing as your life partners, and the remarkable children you are raising, and how profoundly you are navigating life’s challenges—I know that this work has borne fruit. And we’re not talking raspberries and strawberries, here, but whole orchards of long-lasting fruit!

Many of the stories in my book were set during my time here, but there’s one in particular that I want to share with you tonight, because it describes an encounter that continues to bear such fruit.   This took place during Project Mexico X, in January of 2005.  (At that point I was already working at Gwynedd Mercy, by the way, but Fr. Sam hadn’t found a successor for me yet, so I got to go to Mexico one last time.)

This is Chapter 18:  Finding God in Forgiveness

Tim was so sick. We were in Mexico City for our annual service-immersion experience—eight college students and two campus ministers—and on the final day, Tim went down hard. Perhaps it was the water, but more likely it was the way he had hurdled the language barrier with the men in our host family by eating every food they dared him to, no matter how spicy or unidentifiable. Twenty-four hours before we were due to fly home, our host grandmother, Inocencia, took Tim to the doctor, who gave him a shot of something and instructions to continue the injections every six hours.

At 2:00 a.m., twelve hours before flight time, Inocencia got up to give Tim his next shot. But we couldn’t find the syringes! We searched frantically, and even woke up Tim’s roommate, Mark, to ask if he had seen them, to no avail. Since Tim was so sick and flight time so close, Inocencia asked her son-in-law Luis to drive her to get more syringes at a twenty-four-hour pharmacy some distance away.

Luis’s car had barely disappeared around the corner when Mark stumbled sleepily into the kitchen. “Is this what you were looking for?” he asked, holding up the missing box. Apparently, he had decided to be helpful and pack the communal suitcase a few hours earlier, and had thrown in everything he thought was ours—including the syringes.

Now the wait began. This was before cell phones. We had no way of contacting Ino and Luis, and they were gone for a very long time. Mark sat at the kitchen table looking just as miserable as Tim. Our students adored this host family, and the realization that his careless mistake had sent these dear people out into the city in the middle of the night weighed on Mark terribly. Finally, the door opened, and as they walked in, Mark guiltily held out the box, braced for their reaction.

I was watching their faces, and what I saw was amazing. There was not even a fleeting trace of annoyance. There was nothing that suggested they were glad we were leaving in eleven hours. There was only laughter, and giving Tim his shot.

By breakfast, Tim was much better, but Mark was still a mess. “I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “They were so good about it. How can I ever repay them?” I told him what I knew to be true: he couldn’t. “Mark, you have just experienced the kind of utter forgiveness that most of us only get from God. All you can do is be grateful, and remember this feeling the next time someone offends you.” Mark is a police officer now, and recently told me he frequently recalls that lesson.

So much human forgiveness is partial, grudging, or conditional. No wonder we have a hard time imagining the fullness of God’s mercy. Isn’t it ironic that the only way to catch a glimpse is to stand in need of it?

This is how our God works. Mark made an innocent mistake—as we all do from time to time. He could have blown it off, and forgotten it entirely. Or it could have lingered as an embarrassing or even shameful memory. But instead—because he was in a place, in a community of faith, where someone could help frame that moment in a spiritual context—it became an enduring lesson.

And not just for himself. As of this morning, according to Amazon’s report, Mark’s story has reached 27 states, including Florida, Texas, California, and Washington.

The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy!

We may never know the impact that our ministry has in people’s lives. But every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we get to take a stroll in the orchard.

Thank you, and God bless this Newman Center community!

It’s Out There

Finding God in Ordinary Time has been out for almost three weeks now.  It truly is a dream come true.  When I sat down in the cafeteria of St. Monica in Berwyn to sign books after my first event, I opened the cover, picked up my blue ballpoint pen, and thought, “This is my life now!”  I have wanted to have a book in the world since before I could spell, and now it’s out there.

Where will it go?  I’ve been delighted to see the Facebook posts of friends and former students around the country receiving their books in the mail.  And my (modest) book tour will soon be bringing me to Arlington, VA, Wernersville PA, and even Morgantown WV, where I will have the pleasure of placing signed copies in the hands of people I meet out there.

But it’s “out there” in another way as well.  Thanks in large part to the creative hustle of Ben Tanzer, (whom I’ve been calling my Marketing Guy but who might be more accurately be called my Champion), news of the book has reached niches I didn’t even know existed–places that are not part of the “Catholic world.”

It has always been my hope that Finding God would connect with people who didn’t already speak the language of faith.  And that’s what I’m hearing from people like my friend George Allen, who had this to say:

Marketed astutely at least in part towards those “skeptical or weary of religion”–which is to say, right at devout agnostics just like yours truly!–the book is a brief-but-powerful series of essays about how the presence of the “divine” (including however those of us often compelled to put that word in quotes might define it) can be located and appreciated in everyday moments and challenges.

I am so grateful for George’s affirmation.  But this latest round of publicity is reaching the eyeballs (and eardrums) of people who do not already know and love me.  How will they respond?  I may never know–though presumably book sales will tell.

Here are some of the intriguing places that word of my book has gone:

The Rumpus.  This online magazine describes itself as ” a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how.”  They invited me to contribute an article to their weekly “What to Read When” feature, and on 10/5 published my “What to Read When You’ve Lost Your Spiritual Flashlight,” a curated list of books they call “a go-to list for refreshing, down-to-earth, spot-on spiritual reading.”  This was so much fun to write, and it may give you some ideas for what to read next!

Hypertext Magazine.  This “social justice teaching and publishing non-profit” invited me to contribute to their “One Question” feature, whereby an author gets to answer one question of his or her own choosing.  Check out my answer to this question:  Your stories are all from real life; which one are you most anxious about having “out there?”

This Podcast Will Change Your Life.  Recorded live via Skype, my one-hour, unedited conversation with Ben Tanzer ranges all over the place, from how I organized my chapters to the current state of immigration in our country, all under the umbrella of “The Power of Stories.”

Spiritual Directors International.  This vibrant association of more than six thousand individuals on six continents representing more than fifty spiritual traditions graciously accepted one of my chapters as a guest blog post.  It’s the chapter where I get most explicit about the Ignatian grounding of my book:  Finding God on the Oncology Floor.

Lancaster County Woman.  Freelance writer Susan Beam interviewed me for a feature in the Health and Wellness section of this magazine, in anticipation of the weekend retreat that I am giving later this month, called Healing Encounters:  A Retreat for Everyone in the Company of Contemporary and Biblical Women.

Speaking of which, it is not too late to sign up for that retreat, held October 19-21 at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA.  We’ll be praying with all sorts of stories and leaning in to our own healing encounters.  You can find out more and register here!

Thank you to everyone who has helped spread the word, within communities of faith and well beyond them.  I appreciate all forwards, comments, and shares–anything that gets the algorithms of search engine optimization whirring!

Oh wait, speaking of computer algorithms, this cracks me up . . . in mid-September, Amazon named Finding God in Ordinary Time its “#1 New Release in Religious Humor.”  I’m sorry; what?!?  While I do describe the writing as “surprisingly funny,” this is no book of Jesus knock-knock jokes, people.  Let’s hope it’s true what they say:  there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

May your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed . . . and touched with a bit of divine humor!

Christine

 

 

 

 

Before Sunrise

“What is saving your life right now?”  That question, routinely asked by Jen Hatmaker at the end each of her podcast interviews, comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith.  If I were to answer it today, I’d have to say “5:00 a.m.”

Five and I have been friends for a long time.  Left to its own devices, my circadian rhythm always has me up at five o’clock–no matter what time zone I went to sleep in.  When I was in my mid-20’s, working as an executive secretary at US Healthcare, I spent six weeks writing my master’s thesis from five to seven each morning, watching the sky lighten outside the big picture window that was our high-rise apartment’s only redeeming feature.

Now 5 a.m. is saving my life again, for the first time since those thesis-writing days.

The last few months have been my “summer of self-promotion,” as I searched for ways to get Finding God in Ordinary Time in front of the eyeballs of people who would read it, recommend it, and otherwise help me market it.  Now the school year has started, and I’m just a few days away from book launch, and there are SO MANY THINGS I could be doing on any given day, both to promote Finding God and to prepare for the many speaking engagements on my horizon.  And so, most days, 5 a.m. finds me in my rocking chair with coffee and laptop, doing whatever I can to move this work forward.  (At 7:00–at the urging of my doctor–I strap on my Keens and go for a walk before heading to work.  This backfired recently, as my beloved old Keens had worn down so unevenly that they actually threw my back out.  But that’s a blog post for another day.)

As a multi-decade devotee of 5:00 a.m., I would have thought I knew everything there was to know about the hour.  But last month, down the shore (as we say in Philly), I discovered something remarkable.

I have long been a fan of the complicated sunrise, especially over the ocean.  I love watching the sky go through all its vibrant color changes as the sun lights the clouds from below before easing over the horizon; in my book I use it as a metaphor for college campus ministry–witnessing the effects of students’ dawning spiritual adulthood, being grateful each time I am awake to see it.

But in Wildwood, in early August, sunrise is just after six o’clock Do you know what it is at five?  Dark.  Can’t-see-the-ocean dark.  Why-am-I-sitting-on-the-deck-with-coffee dark.

You know what else it is?  Fascinating.

It turns out that–and I am so sorry to know this–the sky is compellingly beautiful a whole hour before sunrise.  The colors keep shifting, but instead of the red-orange-yellow end of the Crayola box, we get a black-navy-purple crayon sky.  I couldn’t get enough of it this year.  I didn’t want to look down–which was okay, because it was too dark to read or write.  I didn’t even want to go inside to refill my coffee, because the sky changed so much from minute to minute.

Wildwood 500

View from the deck at 5:00 a.m., early August, Wildwood NJ

This is how God works, I used to say about the sunrise.  And I still do.  But this is also how God works, I now say about the well-pre-dawn sky.

So many people I know are waiting right now.  Waiting for an employer to call with a job offer.  Waiting for a safe time to break away from a bad relationship.  Waiting for a child to go into recovery, this time for good.  Waiting for discernment to become clear enough for action.  Waiting for healing in body, mind, or spirit.  It’s dark.  Really dark.  Can’t-see-the-ocean dark.  And yet things are happening, well out of sight.  God is at work in each of those situations, I do believe.  The predawn sky has become for me a metaphor for all the spiritual movement that is happening within and around each of us, all the stars slowly aligning, all the things we cannot see that are nevertheless working together for our good.

I’m aware of this happening in my book-launch life.  Much of it is through the behind-the-scenes efforts of Ben Tanzer, whom I’ve never met in person, but who from Chicago is connecting me to all sorts of creative outlets.  (Check out this audio series where you can now hear me read a chapter of my book, or Spiritual Directors International, which featured another chapter as a guest blog post.)  Ben’s going to interview me for his podcast next Friday; that should be a hoot.

And here’s a thing:  I just found out that Amazon has named Finding God in Ordinary Time as their #1 New Release in Religious Humor.  This absolutely cracks me up.  I have no idea how Amazon knows the book is funny, given how many serious topics it includes.  (Four chapters about mothers with cancer.  Four!)  I can’t imagine how it got to be #1 in that super-specific category, but I’m willing to bet that some people will pick it up on the strength of that odd accolade–people who wouldn’t have glanced at it otherwise.  And maybe it will be just what they needed to read.

Herculean human efforts and baffling computer algorithms aside, my hours staring at the black-navy-purple sky in Wildwood reminded me that God is at work in me right now in ways I cannot yet see.  This coming Monday, September 17, the sun is going to rise on Finding God in Ordinary Time.  I will go from being a person who has a book coming out to being an author on book tour (or as much tour as a busy campus minister can muster).  Instead of writing, writing, writing, I’m going to be speaking, speaking, speaking.

Just yesterday, while mentally rehearsing my talk for my first book event (at St. Monica in Berwyn), I felt God say, “So, are you going to talk about you, or are you going to talk about me?”  (Whoops!  YOU, Lord.  Thanks for the reminder.)  And that’s why the  5:00 hours will remain essential.  No matter how busy this season gets, I have to stay grounded in prayer, to allow the message people most need to hear to flow through me, without making it about me.

The days ahead will be anything but ordinary.  If you find yourself awake before sunrise, please pray that they will be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

 

Eat the Peaches

It’s peach season here at the Jersey shore.  The farm stand on the way into Cape May Point has a big display right out front, better advertising than any roadside sign.  So of course we bought a half-bushel, noting that the peaches were still a bit firm, and thinking we’d have fruit to enjoy for the week.

They ripened overnight, which is how we found ourselves standing over the kitchen sink the other day, eating the most delicious, juicy, warm, perfect peach.  And eyeing the rest of the basket with alarm.  Now what?

Of course we could put them into the refrigerator, or blend them into smoothies (ooh, or daiquiris!) or bake them into muffins, and they’d be good in all those forms.  But they would not be as good as they are this very minute, dripping warm juice down our chins into the sink.

Maybe it’s vacation brain, but the peach dilemma–admittedly minor–has me thinking about my conservative approach to so many things (politics not included).  I am a firm believer in delayed gratification.  As a child, I was always the kid who still had chocolate Easter eggs left in her basket around Memorial Day.  As an adult, I’ll save novels I’m excited about for months so that I can read them in the perfect setting.  (Example from this very week:  I brought Bill Clegg’s amazing Did You Ever Have a Family, which I’d been saving since last year, and downed it in four days at the beach.)

Sometimes this approach is grounded in wisdom (this vacation really was the perfect time to read that book, and nine year-old me really should have done her homework before watching Batman).  But other times it’s rooted in just plain foolishness, or even fear–as though somehow there would be no chocolate left in the world when the Easter basket ran out.

This reminds me of Jan Richardson’s quoting of W. Paul Jones:  Hope is the simple trust that God has not forgotten the recipe for manna.  It’s okay to eat it all, God promised the Israelites in Exodus 16.  In fact, it’s necessary to eat it all.  Hoard it on any day but the Sabbath, and it turns into a smelly mess.  (The same may be true of peaches.)

Fear reared its head at the shore in a different way this week, as I stood at the edge of the surf on Sunday afternoon, navigating my usual tension between longing to be in the water and dreading the waves.  It is my vacation tradition to vacillate in the shallows all week and finally brave it with cousins on the last day, regretting all the times I didn’t take the plunge.  But this year we were with Jeff and Deb, one of my oldest friends and his lovely wife, and Jeff took me by the hand on day one and brought me past the alarming breakers to the sublime rollers beyond.  It was the longest I’ve ever been in the ocean without being able to touch the bottom, and it was pure bliss!  The next day I bravely followed Jeff and Deb into the surf, and for the rest of the week I’ve been going in all by myself, hesitation giving way ever more quickly to delight.

The ocean is right there, beckoning like a basket of ripe peaches.  Delayed gratification, it turns out, is sometimes no gratification at all.

This is also on my mind because Jeff has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  This brilliant and funny man is still both those things, but the creeping fog is visible.  He’s handling it remarkably; the Philadelphia Inquirer even did a story about his “coming out” to his students before he retired as a Temple University professor last spring.  He’s in a clinical trial, which may slow the progression and buy him time.  But time is not infinite.  We have had 31 years of friendship, but in my busy, busy life (insert dramatic velcro-ing of back of wrist to forehead), I often take it for granted that Jeff’s there.  But the Alzheimer’s is making it clear: to postpone enjoying time together is to waste the gift.  Like yesterday’s ocean or an overripe peach, it’s not coming back.

Of course this is true for all our loves and friendships, always.  We are all running out of time.  We just don’t acknowledge it most days, because we need to go to work, and do the wash, and cut the grass, and pay the bills.

But work, wash, grass, and bills notwithstanding, I want to take home from vacation The Lesson of the Peaches.  When life hands me something precious, I want to let myself enjoy it in the measure it deserves.

May your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

Just Keep Singing

“Calm down,” I told myself yesterday.  “How many times have we been over this?  You know it’s going to be there when you need it.  You blogged about it, for Pete’s sake.  Just keep singing!”

I was cantoring at St. Vincent’s, and the “it” was the Gospel acclamation (i.e. solo verse) to an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a hundred times.  But here was the problem: earlier in the week I’d cantored three Masses on retreat with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, doing an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a thousand times, with a very similar acclamation.  As I sang the opening refrain (once myself, twice with the choir), I realized that I couldn’t anticipate the verse.  I had no idea what I was supposed to sing next.

I tried to hang onto the wisdom I shared last September in a blog post called Holding it Lightly:

It reminds me of lesson I’ve learned from cantoring at St. Vincent’s over the last nine years. I can’t tell you how often I used to get a wash of anxiety during a ridiculously familiar song—seriously, like the Our Father or the Gloria or the Holy Holy—when I realized that I couldn’t think how the next section began. But of course the reason I couldn’t hear that bit in my head is because I was busy singing the current bit. By the time I got to the worrisome part, the piano would be playing it and my brain would have caught up to the music. Sometimes it was touch-and-go; I’d take a deep breath and open my mouth still not certain what was supposed to come out next, but sure enough, out it came, right on time.

Eventually I accepted that if I could stay focused on what I was singing in the moment, the next one would be given to me. As in Luke 12:12: “For the holy Spirit will teach you in that moment what you should say.” Or, come to think of it, as in the Our Father itself, with its request for daily bread (not Costco-sized multi-loaf packages).

And then came the moment of truth.  The refrain ended.  Valerie, our choir director / piano player, nodded at me.  And the verse was nowhere to be found.  Blank slate.  Crickets. (Or–worse–crickets chirping the Celtic Alleluia instead of the Mass of Hope.)

So much for my wisdom, right?

But then a wonderful thing happened.  I gave Val the “I don’t know the verse” face (and yes, that’s a face:  panic-stricken eyes open wide; slight shake of the head) and she started to sing.  At which point, of course, the whole verse came flooding back into my brain and I was fine.

And so my wisdom from last September gets an addendum.   Sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.

I experienced that reality in my book-life yesterday as well.  As my publication date is just shy of three months away, there is so much work I should be doing:  contacting bookstores, book bloggers, libraries and parishes; developing marketing materials, and strategizing creative ways to get the word out.  The unappealing task of self-promotion could be a full-time job.  Since I have a full-time job, however, I’m just doing what I can in the bits of time around the edges of my days.

But yesterday, out of the blue, I received a surprising email.  One of the lovely women I met on the IVC retreat (where I was also the speaker) went home to Northern Virginia and told a friend about me.  That woman pre-ordered Finding God in Ordinary Time on the strength of her friend’s recommendation, then invited me to exhibit at the Arlington Diocese’s “Future with Hope” Women’s Conference in October.  Suddenly, I have a chance to bring my book to a part of the country I hadn’t even dreamed of reaching.

Indeed, sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.

And so I will continue to practice holding things lightly, stay open to the messengers of grace God sends my way, and pray that I can share that message with someone who needs it today.

How about you?  What do you need right now?  And who might need something you could easily give?

May this ordinary day be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine