Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

It’s been a tough few years for our family.  In spring of 2018 we lost my father-in-law, in the summer of 2018 I lost a close friend from graduate school and just last month we lost my husband’s aunt and a baby that we had hoped and prayed for and couldn’t wait to meet in person.  In a recent conversation with my mother-in-law, she said something that has really stuck with me. “Since Steve died,” (her husband of over 40 years) “I’m not afraid anymore. Death seems different to me.”

Marcia’s perspective is not only true, but also the promise of this O Antiphon.  Christ came to open the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom, and because of him we can know that death truly isn’t the end.  I’ve always loved the scene at the end of The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis when the world of Narnia is ending, and the next world is beginning.  As more and more characters arrive, the command is to go “Further in and further up!”  There is always more room. God truly desires for all of us to be free from darkness and to enter into his glorious light.

Traditionally, the first two weeks of Advent are spent focusing on Jesus’s return at the end of time, and the last two weeks focus on Jesus’s coming at Christmas.  This O Antiphon reminds me of those first two weeks and the promise of a glorious Messiah who will return as he promised. It reminds us that the promise of eternal life is just that: a promise.  And our God is faithful to all generations- if he has promised it, he will do it.

Dealing with loss is incredibly difficult no matter how or when it happens, but trying to keep a good face on the matter can be even harder. Sometimes sharing your grief with students can help both you and the students. After our miscarriage, I was really struggling at work. I had missed several days and the students felt hurt and abandoned because they didn’t know the full story. As I told my canned version for a third time, that we had a loss in our family followed by a stomach bug, my group of 8th graders did something I never would have expected. One student raised his hand and asked, “You don’t have to, but if you can, would you tell us the name of the person you lost, so we can pray for them?” Starting to cry, I told them a very abbreviated version of the story- we had been expecting a baby and now we weren’t. To their credit, the students have kept this story to themselves, knowing that I wasn’t ready to share with the full school community. Their kindness and compassion surprised me in a time of grief.

For today: How have you been surprised by joy in a time of grief? What is your perspective on death? Do you see death as an end, or a glorious beginning, or maybe something else entirely? How do your faith and your views of eternal life relate to one another? If you have time, think of an act of compassion you can do for someone dealing with grief.

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

Knowing our roots is important. I remember as a small girl learning the story of Nicholas Appert, my ancestor, who was a French scientist around the time of Napoleon. When Napoleon needed a way for his army to carry food over long distances without spoilage, Nicholas Appert developed what has now become the canning process. If you look in some old cookbooks, it will still be called “Appertizing”. My dad was very proud of that story, and passed it along to us. Each summer when I preserve food for my family, I tell my son the story too. This connects us to an important part of who we are: our family.

If you look at the genealogy of Jesus, it’s a pretty motley crew.  There are certainly come powerhouses in the group, but for this reflection I want to focus on the women in the list: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  While I wish I were a better person, some of these women are definitely people I would gossip about in the staff room. Tamar was the widow of one of the sons of Judah who slept with her father-in-law when it was obvious he wasn’t going to help her.  They ended up having a son, and it was from this line that Jesus would trace his ancestry. Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho who saved the spies sent out by Joshua and was allowed to become an Israelite as a result. Ruth also wasn’t originally one of the Chosen People, but her loyalty and love for her mother-in-law would probably still inspire admiration today.   Bathsheba was the recipient of David’s lust, and the Bible doesn’t really make it clear whether she was a willing participant in adultery or just a beautiful pawn of powerful men. Even Mary, who we know was conceived without sin, didn’t seem like the best bet for the mother of a Messiah- young, unmarried, pregnant.

The challenge for me in this O Antiphon is to suspend my judgment and my tendency towards gossip to extend mercy and love.  God’s plan for someone else doesn’t have to be obvious to me, but what a blessing it is when I can obviously see God at work in someone’s life.  In schools, there’s so many opportunities to gossip and judge- the student whose parents seem to be putting themselves first in a difficult divorce, the staff member who never seems to pull their weight, and the list could go on and on.  But this Advent and Christmas season, I am going to try to love and pray instead of gossip and judge. When tempted to judge I will pray for a greater love of that person and a deeper understanding of the real roots of their situation.

For today: Pray for a difficult situation in your classroom or school.  Pray for a person who is being judged harshly. Choose to change the subject instead of joining in gossip.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

I’ve always been a good rule follower.  When I started graduate school at the University of Portland, the program I was completing required us to take the Strengths Finder* test and then use our top five strengths to reflect on our day to day experiences as first and second year teachers.  My top two strengths were belief and responsibility, and I have definitely seen these two strengths permeate my worldview since I was a child.

For the non rule followers of the world, rules and laws can seem needlessly restrictive, but there’s a certain freedom that comes from following the rules.  I’m not talking about the silly rules that crop up in almost any environment (for example, our work dress code strictly forbids bib overalls), but more the rules that shape our Catholic Christian moral identity.  Following the rules frees us from worry about consequences and frees us to live more fully within the greater community.

There’s definitely some danger in being a rule follower.  Many great saints have struggled with scruples, or focusing TOO much on their own sinfulness.  St. Ignatius Loyola had a period in his life where he was going to confession multiple times in one day until his confessor pointed out that his zeal was stemming from the sin of pride- who was Ignatius to believe that he was so sinful God couldn’t forgive him?  I myself sometimes find myself struggling with legalism- struggling so much with following every letter of the law that I forget the true spirit of the law.

The good news is that no matter where on the rule following spectrum you fall, Jesus came to rescue you with his mighty power and with the law.  Maybe you struggle with following the rules because you don’t fully understand the “why” behind the laws of Adonai. Maybe you struggle with losing the joy God intended for those who follow his law.  Maybe you know you can never follow God’s law perfectly and this makes you want to not even try. No matter where you are, ask Jesus the law bringer to give you the grace you need where and when you need it to be able to find the joy and freedom in the laws of God.

For today: Reflect on where you stand in regards to God’s law.  Are you a legalist? Are you a rebel? Are you picking and choosing what to follow?  Are you convinced it is too hard to even try? Write a prayer asking God for his strength, grace and mercy as you welcome Jesus the law bringer into your celebration of Advent and Christmas.

*this is an affiliate link. This means that if you click this link and purchase the book, I get a small commission at no cost to you.

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

Wisdom is so important in the business of teaching the faith. Every day students come to us with so many needs and so many valuable and valid questions. Why does God allow suffering and evil? Why does the Church teach the dogma she teaches? We hear of broken homes, parents and grandparents battling cancer, mental illness and so much more. All of these needs require wisdom to craft an answer, a prayer, a response and sometimes even the wisdom to say “I’m not sure- let’s try to figure this out together.” Sometimes wisdom is knowing that the problem isn’t yours to solve.

In this O Antiphon, we ask to be guided and taught on our path to knowledge. Who are some of the people who have taught you with power and love? How have interactions with your own teachers guided you on the path to knowledge?

I remember one of my amazing teachers, Professor Dowling. In my time at Rutgers University I took as many of his classes as I could. At the beginning of my senior year, my life seemed to be falling apart- someone I loved tried to commit suicide, and someone in my family was deep in the throes of addiction. I missed the entire first week of classes and went to office hours to find out what I had missed. As soon as I walked in the door, Professor Dowling knew something was wrong. He pulled me to the side, told me not to worry about classes and with a few questions got to the heart of the matter. Then he said something I will never forget. “I think God knew to send you here today Emily.” He then went on to tell me he would pray about both situations and shared the way addiction and the power of prayer had touched his own life. Dowling had wisdom- both an incredible amount about English Literature and also about how to powerfully love his students.

I want to be that kind of teacher for my students. I want to be able to teach my subjects with knowledge, love and power, but even more importantly, I want to have the wisdom to know what to say when they are hurting, broken and ready to give up.

Today: Pray for a specific teacher who has touched your life. Pray for wisdom in a specific situation with your class and your students.

Happy feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!

A few years ago, I came across an image that I fell in love with. It depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe, not as she usually is shown, but in profile in front of an open window. A starry night sky sparkles over a dark desert. Mary is kneeling, with roses at her feet, and she is obviously pregnant. A soft glow emanates from her stomach.

I’ve thought of this painting a lot recently, and decided that this was the year I needed to purchase a copy for my classroom prayer table before Advent. Through some deep internet searching, I finally found the one place you can purchase the painting: from the artist herself, in North Dakota.

This is Nellie Edward’s bio on her website paintedfaith.net. “Nellie started doing fine art  in 2007 – acting on a sudden inspiration to create a ‘portrait’ of  then “Blessed” Kateri Tekakwitha.  To the artist’s surprise, this was quickly approved by the National Tekakwitha Conference and 5 years later, became the canonization issue cover of Columbia Magazine, as well as the cover of a biographical book. (OSV Publishing)  In the middle of doing the portrait, Nellie received a call from a priest, inviting her to give a ProLife talk at an annual Indian Congress…Now she understood it had a ProLife mission.  She is very thankful for the artwork, which has shown itself to be at least part of the answer to her prayer.”

Buying the painting was a challenge to my millennial instinct to do everything online. I had to call Nellie to place the order, and because everyone screens my New Jersey phone number, she had to call me back, which she did at 5:15 the next morning. What happened next was one of the coolest Holy Spirit moments of my year.

We talked about her art, and I told her how much this painting moved me and how I wanted to buy a print for my classroom. She asked where I taught and I told her the name of our school, Saint Joseph Marquette. For the blog followers who don’t know me in real life: I teach in a little city in an intensely rural farm area that I had never even heard of before AmeriCorps placed me here.

There was a strange pause on the other end of the line, then the astonishing reply, “I went to Saint Joseph’s years ago! That was my parish and school when I lived in Washington!” We talked for a while after that, but I just couldn’t get over it. The mysterious painter of a painting that had stayed in my mind for years is a part of the legacy of my school. This conversation came at a time when I have been questioning whether what I do as a religion teacher really matters in the long run faith-wise. I feel like God gave me a clear answer through this conversation and a few other experiences I’ve had in the last few weeks.

The frame for the print is arriving today, just in time to be the focal point of our prayer table. If you love this image as much as I do, you should check out Nellie’s work at paintedfaith.net.

I know this isn’t the best photo, but I wanted to make sure that people who love the print have to get it directly from Nellie instead of copying and pasting this image.

I’ve had a few requests for my Advent playlist, so here it is. Thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions on things to add!

  1. Favorite versions of O Come O Come Emmanuel:
    Casting Crowns- this one is completely instrumental but has the band’s signature sound. I love it.
    The Piano Guys- another instrumental version with cello and piano.
    Enya- I’ve been an Enya fan since high school and I love the way this version mixes Latin and English.
    BarlowGirl- I’ve also been a fan of these sisters since high school- bonus points for their adamantly pro-life stance.
  2. Light of the World by Lauren Daigle. This song is such a powerful song for Advent. We use it often in retreats and prayer services.
  3. Be Born in Me by Francesca Batestelli. For some reason I am having trouble creating a link for this one, but hopefully you can listen to this beautiful prayer from the point of view of Mary. I love the line “Make my heart your Bethlehem.”
  4. While You Were Sleeping by Casting Crowns. While this song definitely covers more seasons than just Advent, I really love the way the message connects to the world today.
  5. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus by Meredith Williams. So I found this song because of a comment on my Facebook page for Faith that works – thanks Greg and Sara! I learned this song with a completely different tune as a child, and I have to say that I like this tune much better. (It’s the same as Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!)
  6. Advent at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles is a beautiful album for those who love the traditional hymns sung in a simple way.

Here’s the main songs on the playlist! I also have the O Antiphons on there too. Let me know of any I should add.

Most of the links in this post (all of the links to songs) are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link to purchase a song, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

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