God’s Heart Goes On

Who remembers the movie Titanic? The Gospel for this Pentecost Sunday brought to mind a scene from that movie. It is the one where Jack and Rose, our heroes in love, find themselves hanging on to life in the ice cold water,  surrounded by drowned and drowning bodies; a gripping sight, showing the ugliness and ruthlessness of death. Jack is talking to Rose, his whole body shivering from the cold. He pushes her into a promise: “Promise me, Rose, that you’ll never give up in life. I’ll be with you always, Rose. Promise, promise…” Rose panics, fearing Jack will die. She says she wants to die too. Jack says no, and makes her promise that she will not give up.

Like Jack drowning in the ice cold water, Jesus sees in his mind’s eye the shadow of the cross, death waiting to swallow him up. Jesus knows the time with his friends is up. Jesus knows that soon pain and loss will rip them apart. Soon the disciples will experience a fear and anxiety, the likes of which will make all their insides shiver like Jack in the water. Jesus tries to prepare them and to strengthen them, before the blow of his death hits…

… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything… When the Advocate comes, the Spirit of truth will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning…  Words of encouragement in the face of an ugly death. Words of love and guidance in the face of the greatest loss the world has ever experienced.These words are for us too, each one of  us;  words of love and encouragement in the face of our loss, in the face of our death.

For if there is anything sure for those who love generously, it is the reality of the losses we suffer. Jesus’ words immediately brought to mind all the horrible recent losses too many of us suffered: the horrible Broncos bus crash and all that has come with it (and still does); the loss of whales and wildlife due to environmental mismanagement; church bombings in Indonesia; a family losing their Habitat for Humanity home to fire; more than 700 bee species declining due to habitat loss and pesticide use; mass floodings in New Brunswick and BC; a friend receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, communities in our own province evacuated due to wildfires; etc. etc.

And then there are all the other losses, the subtle and invisible ones, the blunt and the slow ones: like losing a job, or not being able to find one; or losing a driver’s license because of ill health or old age, or losing our innocence, or our culture, losing our hope, or our self-confidence. At those times we too can feel the deadening chill of the ice cold water, like our two heroes in Titanic. At those times we too can be swallowed up by fear and despair, like the disciples felt after Jesus died.

Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come; but if I go, I will send him to you and the Holy Spirit will teach you many things. In the face of losses that occur way too frequently, what do these words mean? In the face of Jesus’ crucifixion and death,  who is this Holy Spirit that will “teach us everything”?  Often, the answers are not clear until a crisis hits, facing us with the urgent choice between life and death, in whatever form this presents itself in our lives.

In Titanic, Rose was asked that question only seconds after Jack died. She is heartbroken, shivering in the cold, cold water. The question comes to her in the form of the rescue boat floating by at some distance. The men in the boat call out in the eerie quiet of this floating cemetery. They throw a bright light across the water, looking for survivors. At first Rose does not want to be found, and the tension mounts. Then she remembers Jack’s last words, his last wish. She remembers the promise she made to him, and the Spirit of peace and understanding floods her heart. She rips a whistle off a dead body, and blows it with every inch of strength she can muster … Rose is found, and does end up starting a new life, with Jack’s spirit living on in her heart, as Celine Dion sings in the Titanic theme song.

Like Rose in Titanic, the disciples did not really understand Jesus’ words immediately. Insight grew only after Jesus had died, and when they encountered him as the risen Lord. The disciples did not fully take to heart Jesus’ farewell speech, until they were faced with the shocking resurrection light. Then they were seized by a new hope, a hope they anxiously waited for in the Upper Room. That hope filled them with the Holy Spirit, and they boldly began to proclaim the risen Lord, as reported so vividly in today’s account in Acts (2:1–21). With that bold and courageous preaching the Church was born.

For in hope we were saved, writes Paul to the Romans (8:22-27). Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience – how very true. And so for us too, the Spirit of Jesus is ready to help us in our weakness, in our loss, in our fear. The Spirit of Jesus intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Once we too are filled with that same Spirit, we become bearers of God’s love even in the ugliest and strangest places of life, even in an ocean cemetery such as in Titanic.

Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime And never let go till we’re gone, sings Celine Dion in the Titanic’s theme song. Jack’s spirit went on living in Rose’s heart. Jesus’ spirit too has gone on living after his death, through the Holy Spirit which makes its home in us, imparting a peace, a vision and a joy the world indeed cannot give but desperately needs. Once Jesus’ love touches us one time it too lasts for a lifetime.

As the apostles experienced on that first Pentecost, God’s Spirit is a bright search light that surprises, leaps over barriers, melts away divisions, calms fears, bringing courage, vision and joy. When the bright light of the Holy Spirit seizes us, joy meets us in the midst of struggle, like an oasis in the desert, or the quiet at the bottom of the ocean, while the storm rages on the surface. This bright light of Christ’s Spirit gives hope in despair, fuels the desire to rebuild in time of destruction, provides the calm haven in time of turmoil. The Spirit of Pentecost is unleashed in joyful witness to Good News, the Good News of God’s love in Christ. That bold and universal Spirit breaks through every time we are seized by Love, healed by Love, united in Love, every time when loves moves us to  tears,  when love hurts until we die…

How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Could it be because God’s native tongue is Love, a tongue everyone can hear and receive each in their own language and culture, each in their own context and situation?  Jesus’ voluntary death out of love for us unleashed the greatest Spirit of all: the Holy Spirit…

Our God is a God of surprises, a God on the move, a God of newness. God’s on the move because God is alive and creating and sustaining. For us as the church, Christ’s body on earth, that same Spirit pushes us out the door, out of our comfort zone, and into new waters and uncharted terrain, just as on that first Pentecost. Love can touch us one time and last for a lifetime … Jesus’ spirit lives on in each of us. Let us trust, believe and rejoice, living our life soaked in the peace and joy of God’s own Holy Spirit. AMEN

Homily preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26—27, 16:4—15

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The Ordaining Church

I looked out at the crowd that had filled the Anglican Cathedral on an ordinary Thursday evening. I was amazed, surprised, overwhelmed. They had come, from everywhere, in droves: friends and family, colleagues and ecumenical co-workers. The church catholic was present in its fullest sense: Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholic. Especially Roman Catholic: a sea of them along with religious sisters, several priests and one higher ranking official. The happy grins spoke volumes: I was not the only one who had looked forward to this moment.

In the midst of this ecumenical community of faith I claimed my call before the bishop, made vows and promises, and knelt for the “holy huddle” – Anglican, Lutheran, United and Presbyterian clergy colleagues as well as two RC priests joining the bishop in the solemn laying on of hands.

Ordained a priest. I still struggle to find the words. The impact of the experience was profound. It was profound in my own heart-mind-spirit, in my experience of church, and in the effects upon my current ministry. Given the ecumenical make-up of the assembly that night, I felt truly ordained by and into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in the fullest sense of that term. I have not recovered from the experience – and I hope I never will.

I have always been mindful of the faith community’s role when one claims a call to ministry; one is called by and for the community, never for oneself. Now this crucial role was expressed in the most tangible way possible – the community’s presence and participation was their fiat. A deepening and affirmation, blessing and mandate all rolled into one holy Spirit-filled act of ordination. No wonder I still struggle to find words.

The next morning I presided over the (Anglican) Holy Eucharist for the first time in a Catholic retreat center, which included a renewal of marriage vows for Jim and I – it was our wedding anniversary. Like the night before, the people of God in all denominational diversity packed the worship space, hungering for a taste of heaven where divisions and barriers melt away: take and eat, take and drink, all of you.

Maybe a number of firsts occurred: RC clergy joining in the laying on of hands, one of whom bowing his head for my first priestly blessing; a religious sister leading music at the Anglican Eucharist the next morning while persons from various traditions served as acolyte, readers, communion assistants; communion bread baked by an Anglican-RC couple; those with different beliefs finding a space of respect and hospitality while getting caught up in the joy and gratitude of the occasion.

That I may at last taste the joy of fulfilling this vocation still feels like a miracle. What seemed elusive for several decades has come to pass. At the same time it was always there, for the priestly call lived in my heart as an animating light, a wellspring of grace and love. For this was the peculiar thing: despite the church’s prohibition, the call persisted. Moreover, despite the fear and self-doubt, the call grew me on the inside in ways that bore all the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23)

A priestly vocation originates at the deepest level of one’s being, which is one’s essence. Roman Catholic sacramental theology calls it an ontological reality, an indelible mark on the soul. Years ago I spoke with a Roman Catholic friend who had left the priesthood because, as he said, he had all the external affirmation but none of the internal reality. To which I replied with new insight, “Yes, and I have all the internal reality but none of the external blessing/affirmation.” “I know,” he replied. Surprised, we looked intently at one another with waves of recognition, understanding and respect.

And so when the final report on the validity of my priestly call was issued by the national Anglican Church’s assessment body, a year ago now, opening the path to ordination, the tears refused to stop:
We find Marie-Louise to have a clear sense of call to the priesthood, a call which has developed in extraordinary circumstances over the past 27 years … This growing sense of call took place in the context of a lifelong faithful involvement in the Roman Catholic Church.
Marie-Louise has an impressive history of lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, demonstrating visionary leadership in the development of numerous ministries, which responded to particular needs in the church. Her involvement in ecumenical initiatives is most remarkable, beginning many years ago with studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.
We were impressed with her deep Christian faith and her struggle over many years to be faithful both to the ecclesial tradition she has grown up in and her growing sense of call to priestly ministry. We affirm Marie-Louise’s call to the priesthood. She is a passionate servant of Christ and has a sincere desire to serve God in an Anglican context. (ACPO Report, May 2017)

No matter which denomination does the ordaining, the ontological truth, the imprint on the soul, presses deep; it feels like coming home to one’s true self. Even my friend Carmen, just ordained last month in the Pentecostal tradition, speaks of this reality in her recent blog reflection.

What’s more, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. I am now pastoring two rural parishes, Anglican and Lutheran. All the pieces of my life’s puzzle have come together: formation and ministry experiences of the past 27+ years are all bearing fruit in these two small parishes on the Canadian prairies – who would have thought.

Living Christian discipleship in the Anglican household of God now is opening new spiritual vistas and blessings. My heart is growing larger, unfolding like an expanding universe. My capacity to live from contradictions into paradox and relational truth is stretched, deepened and refined. How do I know all this is from God? Because my joy has never been deeper, my love has never been more costly and intently, my spirit has never been more generous, my peace has never been more solid, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

Meanwhile my Roman Catholic family of origin continues to occupy a cherished place in my heart; in her bosom my faith was nourished and my vocation was born against all odds. I truly live a double belonging. The increasing opportunities for joint ministry with my local Catholic priest and his parishioners are therefore sources of deep joy and immense gratitude, weaving unity in my spirit and among our people.

We don’t make journeys like this in isolation. I extend therefore a heartfelt thanks for the company and friendship, prayers and support of so many on this road towards priestly ministry. It truly takes a community to call a priest/pastor. Pray that I will continue to fulfill this sacred trust faithfully, placing my priesthood at the service of the full visible unity of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  • This is an expanded version of the last column (May 9, 2018) in a twelve month series entitled Double Belonging, co-published by the Prairie Messenger (ceasing publication) and the Saskatchewan Anglican from May 2017 to May 2018.

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Transformed Lives

In the past few weeks I have been following the discussions between the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference on Eucharistic hospitality towards interchurch couples. This question concerns me quite directly as I am Anglican and my husband is Roman Catholic.  Bishops, cardinals and theologians spend endless hours, months and years debating whether or not to open the table of the Lord to Christians not in communion with Rome, but whose baptism is nevertheless recognized by Rome. Jim and I are united in two sacraments: baptism and marriage. But the Church separates us at the table of the Eucharist. This cuts deep, undermining the integrity and ecclesial value of our marital union.

I have profound respect and affection for the Eucharist. Participating in the Eucharist, consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus has been pivotal in my own faith formation. The centrality of the Eucharist has continued in my new Anglican discipleship. But from this Anglican perch, I am becoming more and more puzzled and saddened at the sacramental antics in Rome. It seems that for Rome institutional communion trumps unity in faith and in Christ Jesus. It also seems that the table of the Lord is being treated as the table of the Church. Finally, it seems that a medieval philosophical category (transubstantiation) trumps transformed hearts and minds.

I don’t in any way intend to be disrespectful, but my deep love for the Eucharist and for the church prompt some serious questions. Is Jesus more fully present in a Catholic Mass than in an Anglican Eucharist or Lutheran service of Holy Communion? When I moved into the Anglican tradition, one faithful Catholic lamented that I was leaving the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” This betrays not only a lack of ecumenical knowledge, particularly about the Eucharist, but also a limited understanding of Christ’s Real Presence. I moved so as to grow more fully into Christ’s Real Presence in the world and in the church by living out the priestly vocation God had placed in my heart (despite my objections, I may add).

If the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is truly superior to anyone else’s celebration of the same, then why does this not show in a multitude of changed lives on fire with Jesus? Does the transubstantiation of hearts not take priority over the philosophical minutiae over how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus? *

I know the theological and ecclesial arguments well: it has to do with validity of Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession and visible ecclesial unity. But each of these terms suffers from a constraining definition, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out so succinctly in his seminal work Models of the Church.

In a 1993 letter to a Lutheran bishop, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a Eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit.

Holy Communion is meant to change us, Pope Francis said recently. Echoing St. Augustine he stated: Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! In fact, we invoke the Holy Spirit upon us God’s people to effect this transubstantiation in our own lives as part of every Eucharistic Prayer. Instead, a Catholic Mass can be as mediocre as any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in another church. Worse even, studies have been done on why Catholics arrive in church late and leave early.

I have been at many a Eucharistic celebration in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and now preside at the same in both. Never have I seen people leave before the end of the service. Moreover, every hymn gets its full verses sung as an expression of praise rather than only a couple of verses serving as “traveling music” for the priest. There is a gusto and an engagement in these services that I wish more of in a Catholic Eucharist. If the Catholic Eucharistic sacrament is somehow more whole, more authentic, then why does this not find expression in all who receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus in radical lives of service to others, simplicity of lifestyle, outreach to the poor, and advocates of justice for the oppressed?

It would behoove us all to sprinkle our private and institutional judgments of one another with a good dose of humility and self-examination, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. The Gospels are embarrassingly candid about how little the disciples actually understood Jesus during his ministry. None of us, not even a Pope, should place higher demands on one another than Jesus ever did for those who broke bread with him.

Clearly, none of us fully grasp the meaning of Christ`s sacrifice any more than the first disciples did. And none of us can add anything to our worthiness in receiving Christ’s sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist than what Christ has accomplished in his suffering and death for us. In fact, the seventh century mystic St. Isaac of Nineveh is quoted as saying, ‘Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So then — do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.

What would happen if the validity of the Eucharist was determined by “discerning the Body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29) and measured by transformed lives instead of institutional membership?

  • I highly recommend Gabriel Daly’s paper Eucharist: Doing the Truth with Christian Faith
  • Excerpts from a summary of the RC position on Eucharistic sharing:
    The norms published by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1999 stated, “Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.”
    At the same time, the 2008 guidelines of the Diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said, “the Church does not require other Christians to have more knowledge of the sacrament or more faith and holiness than the Catholic faithful have. This principle is particularly pertinent in applying terms of the law that speak of the other Christian ‘manifesting Catholic faith’ in the sacrament, having the ‘proper disposition’ and being in ‘spiritual need.’”
  • The final reporting on the meeting between the German bishops and the Vatican can be found here. Interesting to note that Pope Francis did not give the bishops a final answer, but sent them home with — work it out, boys.
  • Update May 12, 2018. Cardinal Willem Eijk from the Netherlands (my country of origin) has unleashed a sharp critique on Pope Francis about the matter. Dutch friends have been sending me responses appearing in Dutch publications, fiercely criticizing the cardinal, summed up in: dear Cardinal, close the book and open your heart.
  • Update May 28, 2018: This interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading and pondering for both Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike. Again it raises the question: what is non-negotiable in ecclesial unity and what is acceptable diversity? Rome approved the Eucharistic Prayer of the Armenian Church which does not have an Institution narrative or consecration of elements. What will it take for Rome to accept the Eucharistic prayer of other Christian traditions?
  • Update June 4, 2018: Pope Francis seems to claw back his command to the German Bishops Conference’s to “work it out.”
  • Update June 12, 2018: RC German Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg responds to Pope Francis’ most recent decree.

And the beat goes on …

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