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“Quick! Be Spiritual!”

My life has been a bit overfull of late. Some events were extraordinarily challenging, and others bordered on ecstatic. Really. Almost everything was on one end of the spectrum or the other. And I was not as on top of my calendar as I should have been.

So when Tim, the editor of this illustrious newspaper, reminded me about a forgotten column, I immediately dashed off a promise to quickly get writing. He replied in jest, “It’s like, ‘Quick! Be spiritual!’ That’s got to be tough.”

 

Tim has a great sense of humor. Like a good minister, he’s a great cajoler and encourager. And without realizing what he was doing, he also gave me a great topic for this column.

I don’t know about you, but I am struggling lately with the sheer volume of upsetting events around me. On the public stage, I’ve been profoundly distressed by the imprisonment of migrants and refugees and their vulnerable children at our borders. That should come as no surprise to anyone grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The very first principle of Catholic social teaching (which extends itself, due to its beauty, well beyond Catholic circles) reminds us that “people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.” This applies during war, natural disaster, famine or when their lives are endangered by violence.

 

This teaching is grounded in the experience of the Israelites, who lived as aliens without a home for a stunning stretch of their story as a people. The Torah reminds us, “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.”

This teaching hits close to home for all Christians, who hear in the Gospel of Matthew how Joseph and Mary were forced to escape with their newborn son, Jesus, into Egypt to flee the death threats of Herod. Jesus will one day teach the foundational principle of welcome to his own followers: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. A stranger, and you welcomed me.”

 

On the local level, I’ve watched determined friends struggle to raise awareness of the lack of affordable housing in Eden Prairie. It was not until my sister began looking for an apartment here this summer that I saw how high our apartment rents are. Right now, they average $1,233 (for a one-bedroom) to $1,902 (for a three-bedroom — rents that are 20 percent higher than average in the Twin Cities metro).

Well, we have great quality of life here that justifies that cost, you might say: But these rents cause a staggering 68.3 percent of Eden Prairie households to be cost-burdened, sometimes forcing people to move and lose access to our wonderful schools, among many other things.

 

Common Bond Communities and United Properties are leading the effort to create a development with mixed-housing options for residents with lower incomes in Eden Prairie. Certainly, that will include those in our community who came here as refugees seeking safety and prosperity. It will also include people in entry-level positions, young families, senior citizens and those in chronically underpaid positions like teachers and child-care workers. The leaders of a number of faith communities, including mine, support this effort.

Which leads me to the second principle of Catholic Social Teaching: “The overriding principle … is that individuals must make economic, political and social decisions not out of shortsighted self-interest, but with regard for the common good. That means that a moral person cannot consider only what is good for his or her own self and family but must act with the good of all people as his or her guiding principle.” Indeed.

Finally, I’ve been on a roller coaster with some folks in my life who are struggling with chronic health issues and their fallout. To respect their privacy, I’ll leave it at that.

 

So what does all of that have to do with my smart and insightful editor Tim, you ask?

We live in an age where people are more likely to say that they are spiritual than that they are religious. Religion (perhaps justifiably due to institutional abuses and hypocrisy) has a bad rap. To be spiritual, however, is attractive. It means that I believe that there is something greater than me afoot; that we are all one. To be spiritual is to care about other people, about animals, about the health of the planet. Spiritual people are kind. They are loving, to others and to themselves.

Given the issues that come across our newsfeeds, televisions, radios, and newspapers with unrelenting intensity, as well as the ups and downs of our personal relationships, maybe it’s time to look at how spiritual we are. More and more, I’m seeing being spiritual not as a “feeling” but as a practice. A muscle that all of us can build up and to exercise as needed.

 

The news upsets you? “Quick! Be spiritual!” — act with kindness, love and compassion (yes, sometimes despite the evidence). You’re scared about changes you see in your neighborhood or city? “Quick! Be Spiritual!” Consider that the increasing diversity we live with enriches us rather than detracts. Your Facebook feed giving you agita? “Quick! Be spiritual!” Resist the countering slam or rant. The family has you in a spin? “Quick! Be spiritual!” Breathe and expand the context in which you see the upsetting person and see if you can find some micron of compassion and understanding.

 

It’s not actually all that tough. But it does require some degree of conscious effort and a little muscle. Thank you, Tim, for this week’s mantra: “Quick! Be spiritual!” I have a feeling I’ll be using it a lot in the days ahead.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community and animator of the Power Center, an interfaith center for spirituality. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missagh. This column appeared first in the Eden Prairie News.

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Honor your mother… Earth

earth day“Honor your father and mother,” is the first part of the Fifth Commandment. In our hasty recollections, we might find ourselves forgetting the second part: “So that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

This past Sunday was Earth Day, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “How well am I honoring and loving my other mother, Mother Earth?”

I was a Bergen County, New Jersey, Girl Scout in 1970 when the first Earth Day was held. I still have the patch: “Eco Action,” it says, with a very hip, Peter Max style design. It was exciting to be part of a national effort to impact our natural world. And it was overdue: The preceding decade had cast light on the indifference we had been showing to our land and waterways and all the species and systems that comprised them.

At that time, you couldn’t swim in the nearby Hudson or Delaware Rivers. The prior year the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland had caught fire. Many of the Great Lakes were dumping grounds for industrial and other waste. Cities all over the country were struggling with smog. Entire mountaintops were being removed in the Appalachians. The poisoned environments of Love Canal and other toxic waste sites had made the headlines, as had pesticides like DDT, which had thinned raptor eggshells to the point of endangering eagles, falcons and brown pelicans.

What a list, and it barely scratches the surface of what led up to that day in 1970! Small wonder that activists mobilized to raise our consciousness as a nation to act to protect the environment. In the decades that followed, tremendous successes were achieved, but there were also huge setbacks.

To love one’s mother, the woman who raised each of us, is one thing. Mine is approaching 80, and I certainly cherish her more and more as we both age. But loving Mother Earth is a different kind of challenge altogether, particularly to someone like me who loves her conveniences.

Recently, a young man who is like my son pointed out to me the environmental impact of drinking straws. It turns out that we use 500 million of them every day (that’s enough straws to circle the earth 2.5 times). And it takes up to 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose. Yikes.

My husband has had a thing about plastic bottles for a long time. We buy 50 billion bottles of water in the U.S. Each year. Yes. B. Billion. That’s not counting all the other individually portioned plastic bottles we buy. Seventeen million gallons of oil are used to produce the bottles used for water and 80 percent end up in a landfill.

My daughter is concerned about the environmental impact of meat production, and even though she is literally the biggest steak lover I know, she recently became a vegetarian. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture, not to mention the massive amounts of land, energy and water that are used.

Hey, I admit it, I’m still eating hamburgers. And though I’ve carried around a straw in my car for a while to honor Steve’s concern, I have been seen grabbing soda at fast-food windows. I’m not perfect. But I am, truly, purposing to do better.

That includes cutting down a bit on our family’s meat consumption. Remembering to bring my water bottle. Handing back the straw or even paying for a soda but using my old cup. Making sure I’m thorough about recycling, including helping my spouse collect plastic bags for the recycling dispenser at Cub. Picking up trash when I do my lake walks. Forgoing a weed free lawn in favor of a cleaner aquifer.

I’m called to do these things by my faith. Pope Francis, who I greatly admire, wrote his first papal encyclical, Laudato Sí, about the environment. In it, he urgently appealed “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affects us all.”

We need to treat the symptoms, like care for our parks, lakes and rivers, but also look carefully at the root of what produces harm. Being stewards of creation, aware of the common good, calls us to these actions. Together.

Let’s keep celebrating Earth Day. But not just on April 22. Let’s let our love for our Mother Earth be expressed every day, so that we — our families and friends, not to mention the entire human family and all that relies upon this beautiful planet for sustenance — “may live long and that it may go well [for us] in the land the Lord [our] God” has given us.

The Rev. Trish Sullivan Vanni is the pastoral director of Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community in Eden Prairie. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.

Inspiration, Uncategorized

“Love has come again, like wheat arising green.” A reflection for Easter

wheat crop sprouting“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

The great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark”

This is the truth of the resurrection story we hear today, the story of Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, the women who come to the tomb. Throughout the gospel of Mark, the friends and followers of Jesus have a hard time catching on to who he is. And now, after his execution as a criminal, we can imagine that the men, filled with fear for their lives, are in hiding, and the women – the faithful women – are coming forward to do their duty as good Jews to care for his body.

This is not the Gospel of Luke with its heavenly beings, or the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus appears and speaks, or the Gospel of John with its triumphant language and body that is properly prepared placed in a new tomb, thanks to Joseph of Arimathea. This is Mark. It’s a far simpler story. Three women and a young man, sometimes called a gardener, and a stone that is rolled away.

It’s stark depiction of Easter morning, where Jesus is nowhere to be found.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

I would argue that this is, because it is so stark and so bleak, the most powerful depiction of the resurrection. In it we see Mary and the women plunged into the very familiar, very human reality of death. This is our reality; this is our experience. We are bereft. We are fearful.

Writer Tim Phillips notes that the worst thing about death in all its forms may be that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.

“Addiction” he says, “robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs us of the energy to imagine [some kind of wholeness]. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that might put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive deaths hold on us.”  I have had experiences of this. Perhaps you have too.

But we also have the capacity to awaken our imaginations, to trust and believe just as the women at the tomb did as the young man told them, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

Easter is our invitation, as the poet Wendell Berry says, to “practice resurrection.”  Practicing resurrection is learning to walk in the darkest night. Practicing resurrection is believing that in the midst of it all, wrapped in mystery, is a life-giving grace that exceeds anything we can imagine. Practicing resurrection is affirming that God is with us; that the very creation, in its cycles of death and new birth, pulses with resurrection power.

And that we, too, beloved of God, the sisters and brothers of the Jesus who trusted, have resurrection power, as well.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

We know how this story plays out. The Gospel says that the women didn’t say anything, but it appears that someone eventually broke down and shared what had happened with the others. (Probably the woman who was the oldest, over-responsible sister in her family!)  And we also know that somehow, starting on this Easter morning, the darkness of their grief was transformed, and the people knew that Jesus lived for them.

And with their recognition that he lived, (and what that looked like is a mystery of our faith), the first disciples, men and women once crushed by grief and huddled in fear, broke free – resurrected – and welcomed the new creation that Jesus had unleashed; the disciples of Jesus made one in the breaking of the bread,  God’s beloved community, right now, right here, on earth as it is in heaven.

In every age humankind has been given reasons to stop trusting this, to not believe as the words of the ancient prayer affirms, that “death could not contain him.” We have chosen to be fearful. To hate. To judge. To be cynical. To embrace resignation and apathy.

On Easter, the Jesus that the tomb could not contain, our resurrected Christ, invites us to reject all that and embrace the life that he offers, long ago on an Easter morning, now again this day and every day. Life abundant. Unsurpassed love. The freedom of the Children of God.

Every time two or more of us gather, or act in his name, he is with us. Where compassion is, he is there, where love is, he is there. Where the fight for those who are the least takes place, he is there.

“He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to the State Capitol; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your school; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your place of work; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to every place you enter; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

And when we see him, he will be our reminder of who we are. He will be our sign to break our silence and unleash our love. To be like the three faithful women at the tomb, to tell others who have not seen what we have seen. To proclaim that in a world where things die, there is also resurrection.

“Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat arising green!”

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Prayer and Fasting — and Us.

prayer and fasting.png

Spiritually Speaking  from the Eden Prairie News

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are the themes of the holy season of Lent, the 40  days in which Christians prepare for the great feast of Easter, the holiest day of the church calendar year. But these practices are not exclusive to Christians.

Fasting can be found in just about every great faith tradition, including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. Since ancient times, fasting has been used as a source of spiritual purification. Not unlike the practices of “cleansing” that are currently in vogue.

If you ask anyone about fasting as a contemporary practice, perhaps the first people who come to mind are our Muslim neighbors, who spend the month of Ramadan abstaining from food and drink in the daylight hours. Theirs is an act of solidarity with the poor, with all who do not on any given day have sufficient food.

This same idea underpins the Lenten fasts of Christians. By giving up whole meals, or by abstaining from butter, sugar or meat, a household might save money that could be passed on to those in need. If you enter churches built in prior centuries, it’s not uncommon to find a “poor box” in the narthex, the entrance foyer.

My introduction to fast and abstinence came as a child. As Catholics, we were encouraged to “give something up for Lent” by our priests and teachers. For kids, that choice was often candy, ice cream or soda pop. My mom would always make meatless dinners on Fridays, usually macaroni and cheese or ziti parmigiana.

But what did I learn, really, if I’m honest? We were almost never given soda to drink (maybe a birthday party!) and certainly didn’t have access to candy or ice cream. And those casseroles (I grew up on the East Coast; here we would call them hotdish!) were absolute favorites of ours! No sacrifice there, whatsoever!

For my parent’s generation, the focus on the fast — the means — had in many ways displaced the “ends” — sharing more generously. Unlike my immigrant grandparents, who fasted for every day of Lent, the “new rules” introduced in the 1960s were more flexible and in some ways more compassionate (for example, elders and young children were no longer expected to fast). While the bishops emphasized fasting and its critical connection to almsgiving and prayer, people focused more on the changes in the “rules” rather than the continuity of meaning.

So I’ve been wondering: How should we relate to fasting and abstinence now? Somehow, serving my family a sumptuous fish dinner seems to miss the mark.

I’ve been thinking, certainly, of how our household might be more financially generous. Maybe the extra giving can come from places I indulge myself — like grabbing a sandwich out when I might have packed a lunch. Or popping into Caribou rather than filling my travel mug.

I know that PROP Food Shelf, our local powerhouse for feeding those in need, will welcome my contribution, however modest it might be.

This Lent, the fasting I’ve been thinking about most rigorously, though, is not food-centered. I’ve been thinking about fasting from behaviors that keep me from being the loving and peaceful presence my God and my community ask me to be.

So words are involved. Fasting from the Facebook rant. Fasting from the quick retort or caustic dig. Fasting from gossip and criticism. Fasting from nagging and complaining.

It’s much harder for me to abstain from carping at my children than it is to give up having dessert. It’s much harder to release fear of the future and the particular anxieties that accrue to it than to watch the evening news and yell at the television. (Yes, sad but true.)

So this Lent, my fast focuses a bit more on what comes out of my mouth than into it. But I believe that both practices — giving up forms of spending so I can give more generously to those in need, and giving up behaviors so those around me experience less stress and more peace — fulfill the purpose to which Lent calls me. Which is moving away from self-centeredness and focusing myself on others and my God.

 

The Rev. Trish Sullivan Vanni is the pastoral director of Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community in Eden Prairie. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.