Called by name



I keep up with pop culture in the same way that my parents keep up with communications technology. (That is to say, they own two rotary phones.) So last week was the first time I watched Gran Torino, a 2008 film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grumpy, foul-mouthed, bigoted widower in his seventies. He is a Korean War veteran. He loves his guns, his ability to fix anything, and his 1972 Gran Torino. He built it himself at the Detroit Ford factory where he worked for decades. Kowalski is one of the last holdouts in an old Polish-American neighborhood now settled by Asian immigrants, particularly Hmong.

Thao, a young man from the Hmong family next door, is shy, bookish, and passive. He is easy prey for relatives trying to conscript him into a local gang. Thao’s initiation is to steal Kowalski’s Gran Torino. He fails miserably and is almost shot dead by Kowalski.  Continue reading

Celebration of Catholic Women’s Vocations: Kate Burke

At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke of “women impregnated by the Spirit of the Gospel,” and more recently Pope Francis has called for a “new theology of women.” There are thousands of Catholic lay women discerning how to share their gifts and responding to ministerial calls. In many cases, these women are well-trained and highly educated professionals who bring a wealth of life experience to their work in parishes, diocesan offices, and faith-based non-profit organizations. With this profile of Kate Burke and her ministry, I am launching a series of blog posts which celebrate Catholic lay women’s vocations and profile some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.

– Rhonda Miska

Kate Burke - founder of New Lectio Divina ministry (photo: Michael Bailey)

Kate Burke – founder of New Lectio Divina ministry (photo: Michael Bailey)

It was a cool, rainy spring evening when I gathered with six other women for a ninety minute session of New Lectio Divina. As we trickled into the church shaking off our umbrellas, Kate Burke, our facilitator, invited us to sit in a circle of folding chairs in a corner of the church sanctuary. She informed us that half the proceeds of her ministry go to a parish in central Haiti, and then invited a few moments of silent prayer to open. Next, she passed around copies of two psalms. Psalm 130 – a psalm of penitence – which begins “out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” And psalm 150 – a psalm of praise – with the refrain “praise the Lord!”

Well-conditioned from my scripture courses at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I had a knee-jerk reaction to begin exegesis on the texts. What was the original Hebrew of some of the key words in each psalm? When were they written, and what do scholars speculate about the author’s intent? What would various commentaries have to say? I felt a twinge of anxiety. How could we spend ninety minutes of fourteen verses of scripture with nothing more than the words on the page?

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“Dirty little secret”: Our Johannine church

P03-24-14_15.53We are in late Lent. The weekday Gospel readings are now all John, all the time.

And why not? We are bearing down on Holy Week, and John’s Jesus lives in a “Wanted” poster. They’re always trying to kill him, but can’t quite grab him; they seek to arrest him, but the hour hasn’t arrived. And so on. The liturgical point is that the hour will come.

I have a confession. I don’t much like John’s Jesus.

He has beautiful moments: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Or: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (15:12). Or: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5). Or: “I pray…so that they may all be one” (17:20-21).

Or this one above all: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (20:15-16).

But overall, John’s Jesus can be…well…tedious and arrogant. He expounds on his oneness with God. He demands that everybody and their grandma acknowledge it. He is disappointingly prone to context-free utterances about his exalted mission. At face value, he seems the type to stride into some random diner in some random part of town, shouting “Do you not know that I am he?!” when you just want to eat your pie and pay your bill. No wonder everybody had enough. Continue reading

The Virgin Mary, or, Awkward Conversations After Mass

Last night, besides New Year’s Eve, was also the vigil of Mary, Mother of God. Mass was over, as was our rousing piano-accompanied recessional of “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above.” I was dropping my missal in the rack, preparing to give myself a glancing blow with the holy water and depart via the side door.

An elderly woman stopped me. She is the one who invariably sits three or four rows ahead of me–while Catholics no longer rent pews, it seems we surely do own them–and who always insists on a bear hug, even though I barely know her name and she thinks mine is Jeff.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said. “Maybe you know and maybe you don’t.” I said shoot.

Seeing as it was a feast of Mary, and seeing also as she’d only been Catholic for a year and maybe didn’t know these things, and further seeing as how the church teaches Mary is a perpetual virgin–correct? Yes, I nodded, that’s the official teaching–she wanted to know why Jesus has siblings.

Her face was very intent and very concerned.

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The mouthpieces of God

Chicago. Brown Line. Clark and Lake, City Hall and the County Building. A man gets on my train. With a roar, he begins to preach.

He tells us he was perverse and sinful but Jesus saved him from the world. He tells us the devil is everywhere. He tells us to stop our lying and our fornicating. He suddenly departs one stop later, mid-sentence, at Merchandise Mart.

When I later broadcast the encounter on Facebook, one of my friends chimed in: “Wow! The American Prophet!” I have to admit I’m really hoping not.

But the phrase stuck. And the phrase, along with the image, came back to me when I heard last Sunday’s first reading:

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Complaining is holy

Sarah Kendzior, writer, anthropologist, social critic, recently published a piece at Al Jazeera English entitled “In defence of complaining.” In it, she critiques the inviolable American orthodoxy of positive thinking:

When the bubbles popped, and the jobs disappeared, and the debt soared, and the desperation hit, Americans were told to stay positive. Stop complaining – things will not be like this forever. Stop complaining – this is the way things have always been. Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

What really struck me was her introduction. It was a snapshot of one clergyman who happily galloped toward the new order:

In 2006, the Reverend Will Bowen launched a movement called A Complaint Free World. The goal of the movement was to get people to stop expressing “pain, grief, or discontent”.

The best way to stop expressing pain, grief or discontent was to buy purple bracelets from Bowen’s website. The bracelets serve as a sartorial censor for those compelled to discuss their problems. Every time you complain, you must switch the bracelet to the other wrist. If you go 21 consecutive days without complaining or switching the bracelets, you are rewarded with a Certificate of Happiness.

“Our words indicate our thoughts,” the certificate says. “Our thoughts create our world.”

Kendzior isn’t the first to call B.S. Acid-tongued author Barbara Ehrenreich, of Nickel and Dimed fame, exposed Bowen’s bracelet bonanza in her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America:

Within a few months [since mid-2006], his church had given out 4.5 million purple bracelets to people in over eighty countries. He envisions a complaint-free world and boasts that his bracelets have been distributed within schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. There is no word yet on how successful they have been in the latter two settings.

If Bowen’s method is extreme, his general idea is not. From what I’ve seen, avoiding “bitterness” and staying “tempered in one’s speech” is a powerful American Christian motif. It’s more Protestant than Catholic, more megachurch than mainline, and more suburban than urban or rural, but still bizarrely unavoidable.

To all this, I say: no. Complaint is sacred, holy, Christian. Complaint is the moral core of our tradition.

The enslaved Israelites in Egypt “groaned and cried out” to God. Because of this, God “was mindful of his covenant” and “saw the Israelites and knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). The prophets were full-blooded complainers, whom kings and subjects alike mocked for their “negativity.” In Jeremiah, “terror on every side!” (20:10) was a dismissive nickname, like “Mr. Doomsday” or “Chicken Little.” But ruthless truth-tellers like Jeremiah and Amos survive in our canon, not their mealymouthed counterparts from the royal court.

Jesus was a razor-tongued critic, comparing hypocritical leaders to whitewashed tombs full of rot. The psalmists did not “stay positive”: they wondered why God had abandoned them, why God made them a reproach in the eyes of their friends. Job, the inexplicably-afflicted just one, lamented until God had to answer, even if God’s answer was enigmatic and lofty.

Complaint is truth, calling suffering and oppression by name. As Kendzior points out, complaint is not the opposite of action: it is the indispensable beginning of action, because you cannot change what has no name, and people ashamed of their burdens don’t name them. Complaint is a way for otherwise unnoticed persons, who have never claimed their dignity, to do so for the first time. Complaint exposes the lies that cast down the lowly, while establishing the powerful in their thrones. Complaint acknowledges that even in this life, people deserve to be somehow concretely united with Jesus’ Resurrection. Complaint courageously affirms a reality we try hard to evade, namely that God is not a wizard, prayer is not magic, and faith does not mean hitting the easy button. To remix a saying I’ve seen variously ascribed to Augustine and Desmond Tutu: without God, we can’t. But without us, without our confronting wrong as wrong, God won’t.

So complain. Do not stop naming injustice just because everyone–and at times it seems like everyone–decides you are too negative, too shrill, too depressed, too touchy, too jealous, too sensitive, too weird, too naive, too impatient, et cetera. If you annoy people today, annoy more people tomorrow. You have an unimpeachable heritage: Israelites, psalmists, Amos and Jeremiah, Job, Jesus Christ.

We don’t need your positive thinking. It is escapist, void, useless. We need your truth. We do not sing about a God who treasures the silence of the poor, a God who affirms the positive thinking of the poor. We sing: The Lord hears the cry of the poor; blessed be the Lord. Get up. Make noise. In this place. Today.