Miscarried or Still Pregnant?

This past Lent my parishes (Anglican and Lutheran) invited the local Roman Catholic parish to engage in a study on the Reformation. After all, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century event that splintered western Christianity into a number of different church traditions, traditions that remain divided to this day. However, intense dialogue in the past 50 years and new agreements on key aspects of our Christian heritage have now ushered in a new era of rapprochement, one that needs to be shared and embraced by the ordinary disciples in all church pews.

It seemed timely and such a good idea to gather participants from three traditions to learn and discuss together about the events of the 16th century, acknowledge the significant agreements and convergence that has have been achieved through dialogue at the highest levels for the past 50 years, and to look towards a future of community and unity.

Now I tried very hard to remain realistic; I minister in a small prairie town so I had no illusions of this venture drawing a big crowd. Nevertheless, I was surprised when 14 people showed up for the first of five sessions. The numbers fluctuated somewhat each week but remained steady between 14 — 21 participants. This number was amazing; moreover, people were committed and open to learning. Hearing about the significant dialogues and agreements between our church traditions was a real revelation for most folks, one that clearly inspired and engaged them in new ideas and visions for the future.

To this effect, the parish study, designed by a Canadian Catholic-Lutheran working group and entitled Together in Christ, gave five clear directives to be discussed and endorsed by local churches. These same imperatives were agreed to and signed between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in a joint worship service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, attended by Pope Francis himself:

  1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

This major step towards mutual recognition at such a high church level definitely moves the process towards full visible unity closer to its goal. There was, however, a slight problem in our local Lenten study, one that the group became more vocal about as we approached the last session. The majority of the participants had been Lutheran and Anglican! Despite support from the RC parish priest, alternating meeting venues between Lutheran and Catholic parish halls, and weekly notices in parish bulletins, the Catholic participation remained extremely weak (with the exception of one session which saw six Catholic participants but most didn’t return) and even zero at one session 😦 . It was painful and the group lamented this vacuum, feeling as if stood up on a date. After all, the study was designed as a conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (Anglicans came along for the ride). What could possibly account for this Catholic absence/disinterest?

And so when there’s a vacuum in reasonable explanation, the mind begins to speculate:

  • Were Catholic lives busier than Lutheran or Anglican lives and so they couldn’t make time for this?
  • Do Catholics remain fearful to engage too closely with “those” other Christians?
  • Are Catholics insulated from other Christians and don’t feel a need for serious engagement?
  • Are Catholics unaware of the monumental changes brought about through 50 years of ecumenical dialogues and agreements?
  • Do Catholics still believe the RC Church is the only true church, making ecumenical dialogue unnecessary?
  • Are Catholics overly obedient to papal authority and may fear losing this if engaging in ecumenical conversations?
  • Have Catholics inherited the historical disdain for Protestants through an ecclesial gene pool stretching five centuries now?

I’m still pondering whether this was a huge missed opportunity on the Catholic side, an ecclesial miscarriage of sorts, or if we are still pregnant with potential dialogue and conversation. The group that gathered decided to give the Catholics the benefit of the doubt and is opting for the latter. The group is currently preparing a letter addressed to the local Catholic parish community, indicating how much their voice and participation was missed and could we please talk.

By way of closing the 5-week Lenten study we shared, even if only with less than a handful of Catholics, we did mark Good Friday together with a joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican worship service. It seemed appropriate to come to the cross of Christ in contrition and humility. Lord, O Lord, have mercy.

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Turning …

Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican Service

A few weeks ago I participated in a retreat with Steve Bell as presenter. He’s a successful JUNO-Award winning Christian musician from Winnipeg. It was a special treat to ponder Steve’s thoughtful reflections interspersed with beautiful songs on the guitar. Among the Lenten themes Steve explored with us were the words Passion and Compassion.

Steve shared how he had sat with his ailing mother when she was no longer able to communicate all that much. He shared with us how terribly uncomfortable that had been. So used to do-ing stuff, all Steve could do … was to … sit with her. Steve sat with his mother – awkward, restless and unsure of himself.

As Steve sat with mom feeling so darn useless and awkward, he remembered how, as a young boy, he sometimes had noticed all the veins showing clearly on the back of his mom’s hand. He remembered how he used to kind’a play … with those veins when he was little.

And so, now some 50 years later, sitting restlessly with his mom, holding her hand, he noticed once again her veins. And just like a long time ago, he began to play with them again. Steve discovered that just sitting with mom and holding her hand was in fact … enough. Sitting with her was more than enough, it was rich and full … meaning-full.

Because every time their eyes met, Mom smiled at her son. Steve learnt an important lesson: simply sitting … with mom … and loving her through her hand became the expression of compassion for Steve, until Jesus took his mother’s hand to lead her to the place of LOVE prepared for her in eternity. Steve thus learnt about the passive action of compassion.

It is clear that Jesus had a passion for Compassion. Throughout the three short years of his ministry, Jesus plowed through life bringing healing and mercy, bringing grace and justice, through actions and words coming straight from God himself. Jesus can easily be called an activist: he tirelessly drew crowds and taught them, he had a nose for those who were hurting and lost, he fearlessly jumped over and broke barriers and walls, social barriers, cultural walls and religious boundaries, much to the dismay of the learned and the well-off.

He instructed his disciples and the  crowds, blessed the children, and had sharp words for those who felt religiously superior to everyone else. Jesus’ passion for compassion stirred one whirlwind after another.

It all came to a climax that morning when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowd went wild: Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

And then … came … the turning … The crowd turned, and Jesus turned … Jesus’ passion for compassion turned into passive … passion … Events turn to the worst, and Jesus simply lets it all happen to him. Gone is his passionate outreach and touch, gone is his passionate embracing of the lost and needy, gone is his fiery speech. Jesus the activist turns into a passive victim … or so it seems …

Our faith teaches us that Jesus went before us in all things. Because of Jesus, no one need suffer alone ever again. Jesus knows our human condition – intimately. Jesus ran the gamut of emotions and experiences. Jesus knew all about relationships and betrayals, about loving devotion and brutal abandonment, about boundless joy and scornful hate.

Finally “going before us in all things” required one more surrender; the hardest, most painful moment, the event we recall today – on this Friday which we call Good. In order for Jesus to enter fully into solidarity with our human condition, our suffering and death, he turned … and let it all be done unto him … – the worst betrayal, the worst crime, the worst death.

Good Friday is ironically named, really. It really is a terrible and disorienting day. The worst human treachery and the worst affront are on full and embarrassing display today, seemingly swallowing whole our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.  Of all days in church, today we re-visit in a very graphic way the reality of our losses, the pain of our deepest disappointments and the harsh truth of our sinful complicity in snuffing out all that is holy and healthy and beautiful, in ourselves, in others, in God’s world.

On this day Christ absorbed all the world’s sorrow and sin, and bore them to the grave. Today is about death. Dead death. We feel death in our bones. We feel death breathing down our neck. No matter how lavishly we live in order to mask and perfume the stench of death, we know deep down that death is inescapable. We fear that it could be the last word on our lives.

On this day, this Good Friday, we need to feel the real agonizing and desperate loss that precedes resurrection. If nothing else, we prayerfully and compassionately commiserate in solidarity, after Jesus’ example, with those who have no such hope. It is all intended to be mighty uncomfortable, and it’s all intended to make us brutally honest – with ourselves, with one another, with God.

Jesus is the Saviour who first says “follow me,” burns with zeal for God, in passion and compassion, then … dies … looking like the ultimate loser. But he didn’t die a victim, he died a victor. For to keep extending love, God’s love and mercy, to your murderers as they are killing you is not for sissies. Carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat! Bearing such pain with integrity and strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose … we are: God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

In Jesus, God effectively neutralized the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” This is a brand-new answer, much like  defusing a bomb. Now the answer no longer contributes to the problem anymore. In the cross, God says: “I will bear the problem myself. I take upon myself the sin of the world. There is NOTHING that I cannot transform. Try me.”

And so in his death, Jesus killed death itself by absorbing and neutralizing the very darkness of death that ambushes us all. From that “Good” Friday on no one, no one, needs to suffer and die alone ever again. Jesus has been there done that, and he awaits us in our darkest hour to hold our hand in order to lead us in our painful passion with God`s compassion through our darkness into a new light.

The first century folks, who experienced this event in real time, didn’t have the luxury of knowing where this brutal execution would be leading. Neither do so many who suffer and cry out today have any idea that their suffering could lead to new life. After the example of our Lord, who died in solidarity with all humanity, this holy day of Christ’s death compels us to come alongside all our desperate sisters and brothers in need, both far and near, who cannot possibly imagine a resurrection, neither in this life or the next. We pray today for those who cannot pray for themselves. And it is a day for fearless moral inventory, acknowledging truthfully our complicity in causing one another’s grief and sorrow, hurt and destruction.

Jesus, the passionate compassion of God, is summoning us today to join him in the turning … Just as Steve held his mother’s hand as she turned towards God, so Jesus holds our hand as we turn … turn away from indifference and toward solidarity and community, turn away from sin, destruction and death, towards God our Creator and Redeemer; turn away from all bondage in our hearts and towards the cross where Love conquered death forever.

No suffering will ever need to be suffered alone anymore. Our Lord has indeed gone before us in all things; that commitment cost him his life – for us. We claim our salvation in him. Oh come, let us adore. AMEN

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