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.)

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

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3 thoughts on “Holding Tension”

  1. Thank you Marie-Louise for sharing your thoughts. I have to read more about Jordan, as I was not following the activities of General Council for the UC. I have been on holidays and not paying attention . Not a good practice for a UC member.
    John

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  2. Hello, Marie-Louise,

    I do try to restrain myself and limit my number of comments to your blogs. Isn’t restraint supposed to be good for the soul?

    However, that set of questions has sent me off again. Reminds me of “the three tests for Christian faith” as devised by a United Church friend of mine:

    Does what you believe cause you to:
    1) Spend your money differently?
    2) Support the people you love more creatively?
    3) Treat those you can’t stand with gentleness and humour?

    Thanks for posting blogs that make me think.

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  3. My dear friend of 40 years has forwarded your blog to me. She is a member of the Catholic Church and we’ve had some interesting discussions. Thank you for a thoughtful commentary on the decision of my church to elect Rev. Jordan Cantwell as our new Moderator. Raising your questions in such a respectful manner encourages good conversation. Many political and religious leaders could learn from you, so please keep writing. Our church wrestled with the question of sexuality in the 80s. It was an interesting time for me. Eye-opening, you could say. Blessings.

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