Holding Tension

It’s not every day that I can say I know someone in the “higher ups.” But now it has happened. As coordinator for an ecumenical network of women in ministry, I have the great pleasure of knowing a wide array of incredible, faith-filled and gifted women serving Christ and his Gospel in various churches and ministries. Often I feel like sitting at their feet learning, soaking in their wisdom and beauty. One of these women, a pastor in rural Saskatchewan, has just been elected (on August 13) as the new Moderator of the United Church of Canada. I’ve had the privilege of working with Rev. Jordan Cantwell on a few ecumenical projects and have been impressed with her personality, her integrity and her giftedness.

I dare say that Jordan and I take a mutual liking to one another as women of faith and colleagues in ministry. There is, however, one area of Jordan’s life which I genuinely struggle with, and that is her sexual orientation and her marriage to another woman (sharing this fact is not violating any confidentiality, as it is fairly public). It is not that I outright condemn homosexuality, but I sincerely struggle to understand the concept of same-sex marriage from its theological, anthropological and biblical perspectives. I truly do not know what I seem unable to grasp; moreover, I find very few circles in which respectful discourse on the subject is possible without the smugness of the Christian right or me being labeled homophobic by the same-sex left, both sides lacking humility and respect.

Various parts of the world are clearly choosing to move same-sex marriage into the cultural and social mainstream. However, the Christian churches remain divided over the questions this rising tide is raising, or even resist wading into the questions, which in turn creates an insidious kind of dishonesty and shadow-world. What gives me hope that we can engage in honest and respectful conversations, however, are people like Jordan.

In a media interview a couple of days ago Jordan is quoted as saying: One of the things I bring that has been affirmed in me is an ability to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect. There is a lot of diversity in our church and there’s a lot of diversity in our world. And I try to bring curiosity before judgment, into situations where there’s deep disagreement … I actually find that often, underneath what looks like really disparate views are some shared concerns. ~ Rev. Jordan Cantwell in The Star Phoenix, Aug. 14, 2015

Sometimes we speak of someone as being “generative.” Such a person constantly generates life and energy as opposed to draining it. When applying this to the spiritual and ecclesial realms, we can ask what makes someone mature in the areas of faith and church.  It is precisely this kind of generativity that I see in Jordan’s personality and ministry. A mature believer creates spiritual energy rather than diminishes it, even in situations of disagreement and conflict.

Living generatively, of course, is not always easy to do, especially in painful or conflictual situations. We do not live in the best of all possible universes. This is true in families, communities, and churches. We are forever caught in situations less than ideal, full of tension, and fraught with potential for every kind of strife and conflict, self-pity and bitterness.

What are we to do when this happens? Spontaneously we are tempted in one of two directions: fight or flight. To run away and distance ourselves from the tension — “This isn’t worth it!” Or, to stay, but grow bitter and resentful and become, ourselves, a centre of anger and tension while regarding anyone disagreeing with us as the enemy. Neither of these is particularly generative.

There is, however, a “third” way, and that is to help carry that situation and transform it, or as Jordan put it in the above quote “to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect.” In this third way we neither flee nor grow bitter, nor turn those who disagree with us into enemies of the worst kind.

Would that we could learn to stand together in the tension and hold it, just like Mary did under the cross of Jesus — neither fleeing, nor bitter, nor weak. The Gospels tell us that, as Jesus was being crucified, Mary stood under the cross. What was she doing there? Overtly, it would seem, very little. She was not trying to stop the crucifixion, protest it, or even defend her son’s innocence. She did not, it appears, say anything at all;  she just remained standing. That was significant. Standing, for the Hebrews, was a position of strength. Mary did not collapse under the cross in weakness; neither, it would seem, was she bitter.

So what was she doing? I’d like to think that under the cross, Mary was helping to hold, carry, and transform the tension, bitterness, anger, and darkness of that moment. Unlike the crowd, caught up in spontaneous emotion, she did not give back in kind — anger for anger, hatred for hatred, bitterness for bitterness, an eye for an eye, unfairness for unfairness. Rather, like a water-filter that purifies bad water by taking out and holding within itself the impurities, and then giving back only the pure water, she held the anger and hatred and gave back only graciousness and love. Real transformation in any relationship — friendship, marriage, family, church, community — takes place only when we remain standing in the situation, holding within ourselves the injustice and bitterness, the misunderstanding and condemnation, not giving back in kind, but instead giving back  graciousness, blessing, and love. That, by the way, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross: return mercy for murder, forgiveness for violence.

Would that we all, for and against same-sex marriage, learn this posture in our dealings with one another. I have a long ways to go, but I sure want to be such a person, esp. with those whose life choices challenge me. I want to foster a posture of curiosity and inquiry long before resorting to judgement and condemnation. Love too is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

And whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, let us entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future. Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong, as Sr. Janet Mock said recently, Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry. (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

The most important ambition is to foster a curious mind, a welcoming spirit and a loving heart while  asking the following questions:
• Where do we see the Holy Spirit?
• How does this action reflect God’s justice, God’s economy, God’s grace?
• Does this direction embody the truth of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture?
• How does this strengthen our relationships with one another in the church, in this country, to the land, to all our relations?
• Who is being left out/silenced? Who needs to be heard/included?
(inspired by the nomination Profile of Rev. Jordan Cantwell)

So Jordan, my friend now in the “higher ups,” welcome to the new ministry our gracious and loving God has entrusted to you. May that lovely Divine Spirit continue to stir your passion, and may you, like Solomon (who I preached on today to the Anglicans) be granted “an understanding mind, the ability to discern good from evil, and wisdom to see God in the face of your enemies.” (cf 1 Kings 3:3—14)

(A special thanks to Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, for his thoughts on generativity, Mary and holding tension, as written in the Preface of my first book Finding the Treasure Within.)

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Heaven on Earth

My friend looked radiant as I entered the hospital room. “I found a way to be in heaven while living on earth!” she exclaimed. My open mouth and wide-eyed look gave away my shock; where was the depressed spirit, the monotone voice I heard only days ago, indicating that Carol had given up? She leafed through the book on her bedside table, while paraphrasing what she had read under the heading A little secret for those afraid of dying: “There are three ways to get to heaven without dying: to live fully in the present moment, since in heaven there is no time limit; to allow everything in life to move you and fill you with love, since the measure of love given and received is the only thing we get to take with us in death; and to give away those things that make for treasures in heaven like forgiveness, comfort, blessings, faith, hope and love.”

These words were as much a revelation to me as they were to my friend. For what I heard was another way of saying that the kingdom of God is truly here and now. We do not have to wait until after death to enjoy this kingdom. The more in fact we learn to live in faith, hope and love in this life, the more familiar heaven will feel, the more prepared we will be to meet God face to face. Treasures in heaven are those things we give away on earth. It is God’s greatest wish to give us the kingdom, and it is available here and now in the giving of ourselves, free of charge, without strings attached.

This new insight served as a corrective on my previous understandings that viewed heavenly blessings as “rewards” for living properly and faithfully. I still view the blessings as rewards, but not in some punitive/meritorious system imposed by God. Rather, heavenly blessings are a natural outcome of how we live our lives. If we can live as generously, as forgiving, as foolishly intense, as lovingly as God does, we will feel right at home in heaven once we get there. To the extent that we seem incapable of living and loving as God does, to that extent heaven will feel not only unfamiliar, but even hostile. If loving generously was not a part of our life on earth, then heaven can indeed feel like hell. It is not a vengeful God who chooses to punish. It is us that merely experience the natural consequence of a life filled with inadequate loving. Pope John Paul II said the same thing: ” ‘Eternal damnation’ is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever” (Papal Audience, July 28/1999). Seen in this light, God’s desire to honour our human freedom at all times is the fulfillment of God’s foolish loving of creation.

One summer evening a parish priest in a small town in B.C. heard a knock on his door. A young man and his wife were stranded. They had taken a week’s holiday with their old van, camping in the Rockies. Just before heading home to Calgary, their van was robbed – purse, wallet, stereo, belongings – all gone. They filed a police report. They tried to call a brother and a mother in Calgary; everyone was on holidays. They had no way to get home. The priest gave them enough money to make it to Calgary. He gave it to them with the request that when they could pay back, they do so by turning around and giving it to someone else in need. With grateful hearts, they promised they would even increase the amount. Deeply moved and immensely grateful, echoes of the movie Pay it Forward streamed through the couple’s minds and hearts.

This is how treasures in heaven multiply. This is how we train our heart to love as fully as God does. My friend in her hospital bed took this lesson seriously. So did the parish priest in B.C. and the young couple at the receiving end of his generosity. Treasures in heaven, enjoyed while on earth.

It’s heaven all the way to heaven; it’s hell all the way to hell. ~ St. Catherine of Siena & Richard Rohr, OFM

Heaven is a choice we make, not a place we find. ~ Wayne Dyer

It’s not hard, is it?

Prairie Encounters

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