Messing Up

I had it all planned out. With Scripture suggestions from the Season of Creation, I have spent four September Sundays preaching on creation. This would then nicely lead into Thanksgiving (this weekend) at which time we would all give thanks to God with a deeper understanding and a firmer commitment to the healing and restoration of the earth. So now we returned to the regular Lectionary.

And that’s where the “trouble” came in. The readings seem so far removed from the spirit of our Thanksgiving weekend. Rather, today’s Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) is kind of a painful whack around the ears! Commentaries galore cautioned the preacher, such as: “How to preach on Jesus’ words when divorce is so prevalent today?” “Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”  “These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.” These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, I/we gather courage … and … take time to seek and to find Good News in these words of Jesus on this Thanksgiving weekend.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” (as Genesis and Jesus tell us) rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain – if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up. Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Often unhealthy behaviours of abuse and betrayal, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Far too many women are uttering MeToo right now when it comes to domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse. Other times a growing apart between spouses creeps in, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is hard to find. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery… far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation and betrayal, rejection and alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. As today’s account from Genesis (2:18—24) reminds us, it is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, as much as the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, wanting to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, as if keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system.

Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right, nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life – and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws – and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain – and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness – and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification – we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that exclude the sense of community – we collude with the sin of failing one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, or for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child into his arms. In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care. No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, here is a story about children: Jenna had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play.

About this time, her little sister Sally came into the room and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister Jenna came back in. When Jenna saw what had happened, she screamed at Sally: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, Sally was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears and hid in the closet. But when Jenna realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… – says the Lord our God… What a beautiful message on this weekend after all: Happy Thanksgiving!

Homily preached on Thanksgiving Sunday, October 7, 2018
Genesis 2:18-14, Mark 10:2-16

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Barriers or Boundaries

Barriers and boundaries
unjust or necessary, demeaning or holy;
which is which I ask gleaning and boldly.

When do barriers need to be broken
and when are boundaries not to be token?

Barriers obstructing,
boundaries fostering;
do barriers always demean
where boundaries protect,
or do barriers also protect
where boundaries defect?
Do barriers serve a noble purpose
where boundaries fail to pose?
While barriers can pose as boundaries
belittling and dehumanizing,
boundaries can pose as barriers
honouring, carrying and concealing.

So how to know and honour
a barrier for one while a boundary for another?
Can a boundary well-intentioned and needed
be a barrier for another so hard to be heeded?

Do barriers feed on fear
while boundaries thrive on being near?
Boundaries open discovery, health and trust
where barriers parade in threat, stealth and disgust.
Barriers build great hiding places
where boundaries reflect open faces.
Boundaries encourage respect and honour,
a precious anointing by a kiss from the Holy,
where barriers inflict and disguise,
an insidious curse not worth the glory.

Boundaries bounce like a smiley wave
dancing a circle of safety and trust.
Prickly barriers block, resistant to change,
keeping out the new and unknown is a must.

And if confused about boundaries and barriers
track the energy stirred in your heart
and you will know which one is doing its part 🙂

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Urgent Reclaiming

Heard of the Season of Creation? Well, yes it is harvest time right now, and several of my parishioners are spending Sunday mornings worshiping God on the combine. But matching this glorious abundance of the fruits of the earth is a call from the churches (nine this year) to focus our worship specifically on the created world. This new liturgical season, inserted into Ordinary Time, began on September 1, the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and goes until October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. During this time our prayers, hymns, Scripture readings and preaching are to assist the faithful to reflect on the gift of creation, the perilous state of our natural world today, climate change and the urgent call to a radical shift in lifestyle and economic priorities for the sheer survival of the planet and all living things.

In a way it seems odd that creation needs a special season to get our attention. For the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that tender and loving stewardship of all living things on earth is our duty and our purpose. But we have been so enamoured with modern living, consumerism and materialism that the intimate bond with creation is in dire need of serious repairs. Even scientists are beginning to acknowledge that the environmental problem is much bigger than they can address from their vantage point: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (Gus Speth, environmental scientist and advocate)

We have so betrayed God’s original Biblical command to care for the earth, that those seeking a spiritual connection to the land and ecological living now often turn to non-Christian sources of inspiration and support. Last winter a radio program featured an Anglican priest who embraces certain aspects of pagan spirituality in an attempt to restore the Biblical imperative to commune with nature. The interview caused a stir among well-meaning Christians, who seemed completely unaware that this priest might be motivated by a deep desire to bridge the divide between Christianity and ecologically-minded adherents of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions.

Incredibly sad and even dangerous, that too many of us fail to reflect in our daily living a deep and reverent connection with and responsibility towards the created order. Anyone delving into our Christian heritage will discover that there are many connecting points between the demands of Christian stewardship of creation and pre- and non-Christian paths which emphasize the same.  Spiritual paths that place care for creation front and center need not be mutually exclusive. The problem with Christianity is a massive neglect and collective amnesia on such matters, matters which now push us to take note for the sake of the planet’s sheer survival. For example, many elements found in neo-paganism are/were at one time part of the Christian understanding of the universe/creation but have been buried, neglected and forgotten. The book Saving Paradise provides a fascinating, and sad, account of how we lost touch with the beauty and splendour of God’s creation.

Written into creation and the created order is the challenge to live respectfully together on this planet, and to care for our common home. God has given us this challenge. Scripture tells us that when God created the natural world, he saw that it was good (Genesis 1:25). It has long been a fundamental teaching of  Christianity that the physical universe plays an important role in God’s plan. Our faith in spiritual things does not mean a rejection or devaluation of material realities. Christ came to raise up humanity, and all of creation with it, to the Father. As human beings created in God’s image, we have a unique responsibility to safeguard the created world and to treat it with respect. This fact lies at the centre of our obligation to lovingly tend and treasure both creation and each other. Unique among the creatures of our planet, we are created to be, and to love, like God. We manifest this love towards our fellow human beings and towards every creature God has made.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common HomeWe forget too easily that we ourselves are dust of the earth, our very bodies are made of the same elements as all living beings. We breathe the same air and we receive life, refreshment and nourishment from the Earth’s waters and vegetation. 

What will it take to reclaim these elements pertaining to the stewardship of God’s world in our own Christian tradition? Besides a growing, albeit slow, awareness that we do need to turn the Titanic of unbridled consumerism around, leading theologians and church leaders are increasingly joining the calls from scientists and environmentalists. Quantum theology and a new cosmology are being explored by scholars such as Diarmuid O’Murchu and Illia Delio. Theologians are taking a new look at the works of Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, who was also a biologist and paleontologist, and whose insights the church and world were not ready for in his lifetime. But we can go back even further than that, to beloved saints such as Francis of Assissi and Hildegard of Bingen? What can we learn from them as we hold them up to the neo-pagan understandings of creation?

I see a most fertile field of research and reflection here. Is it possible, for example, to communicate neo-pagan concepts using such Christian voices? Would such an exercise create more openness and understanding between Christian spirituality, neo–pagan practices, and other non-Christian paths that foster an intimate bond with the created world ? For the sake of the planet’s health and survival, for the sake of Christianity’s integrity and authority, this seems to me to be a most pressing task.

Our collective ignorance of our own Christian theology, history and spirituality is now rapidly creating a noose around our fragile planet, ready to choke life itself. Our great and loving God has written a most precious book called Creation. From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe, continuously revealing the hand of Divine origin. To sense each creature singing the hymn of its own existence freely and without concern is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope, towards God’s purpose and meaning.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, we are people of the Incarnation  – do we really realize the consequences of this statement of faith as it relates to the entire animated world/creation? When it comes to lovingly stewarding the created order, the command of our Lord to serve and care and restore and heal applies equally to creation. Genesis One and Two together provide the spiritual foundation to do so. The care of creation, our common home, is to be intimately near and dear to our faith. Our worship and work and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to care and cherish, to restore and conserve the glorious, God-given diversity of the earth’s creatures becomes second nature.

Bishop Mark MacDonald wrote a poignant reflection on this urgency.

A new concept of “Wild Church” is developing

A lovely account of an event in Saskatoon

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Falling from Grace

The Grand Jury spoke while I was on a well-deserved holiday and anticipating my God-daughter’s wedding. Its gruesome verdict hit me in the stomach like a rock from outer space, burrowing deep grooves of anger and horror into my mind-heart-spirit, blowing the holiday fun to smithereens. What to say about the Pennsylvania Report with its graphic X-rated details? First, Holy Scripture lept to my mind:

When one member suffers, all suffer. (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
Be very careful how you live. (Ephesians 5:15-18)
If anyone one causes but one of these little ones to stumble … (Matthew 18:6)
Discern the Body … before sharing the holy food and drink (1 Corinthians 11:29)

Next came the claims made by Rome throughout the centuries, now sounding like hollow echoes of a past era:
No salvation outside the church …
The fullness of the church exists in the Roman Catholic Church …
Priests act in persona Christi
Jesus is the only way …
The deposit of the only true Eucharist and Holy Orders …

If any RC priest dared to ignore this report in his homily the Sunday following its publication, it would only increase the betrayal and hypocrisy, delivering yet another death knell to an institution that has stood as a bulwark for Truth, claiming the exclusive corner on salvation, shepherding a global flock with a benign patriarchal/fatherly hand – or so many thought.

Now, with razor-sharp precision, the emperor is stripped of its regal clothes. The only posture worthy of any honesty is raw transparency and tearful humility on the part of every priest, deacon and bishop, guilty or not, but nevertheless complicit in a system that concealed more than it revealed. The dark destructive shadows crushing vulnerable souls are now emerging under the scrutinizing, merciless light of justice and truth. Men who saw it their duty to tie heavy burdens around the necks of God’s good people, ordinary folk struggling to live with integrity and decency, are now hanging in the scales of justice. Men who acted “in persona Christi,” claiming exclusive powers to consecrate/transform and administer the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation did so with deviant hearts, filled with the filth of soul-destroying behaviour, the details of which are too horrific to recount. Be careful how you live, warned St. Paul. Be careful how you live, warned the Fathers and custodians of the faith. Be careful …

While many reports of clergy sexually abusing minors have been released in the past decades, this report somehow has an acid core: never before has the dichotomy between saint and sinner been depicted so graphically and detestably. Never before has anything cast such shameful light on the immaturity and irresponsibility of men – underdeveloped, weak and terrified of their own humanity – intoxicated with ecclesiastical power deformed by an institutional harnass of an all-male celibate priesthood that ended up choking them softly and sweetly, taking unsuspecting innocent lives with them.

I feel like throwing up … We desperately need an ecclesial #MeToo movement as well as an ecclesial Truth and Reconciliation process. How come such secular initiatives keep arising from outside the very institution that claims the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable and abused, and that claims to be all about truth and healing, justice and reconciliation in Christ Jesus? The betrayal and hypocrisy are simply too much to comprehend … Shell-shocked bishops are fumbling inadequate responses, priests are becoming hesitant about wearing their collar in public. All of a sudden, Catholics are wondering: are you one of them too? How deep and wide does this virus go?

Is the institutional church collapsing under the weight of its false certainties? Is this the same church that nourished my faith and guided my life in such meaningful ways? Is this the same church in which my own priestly calling was awakened despite its own refusal to bless that call? The dominoes are falling, the structures are crumbling — the Emperor has no clothes … No words, just kneeling in bewilderment, breathing heavily in between the sobs of my spirit, prayerfully whispering that haunting hymn our own Leonard Cohen has given us in prophetic poetry, with a much-needed addition:

O gather up the brokenness, and bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises you never dared to vow
The splinters that you carry, the cross you left behind
Come healing of the body, come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it the penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space
And none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing where love has been confined
Come healing of the body, come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding that tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing an undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching to the broken heart above

Let the heavens falter, let the earth proclaim
Come healing of the altar, come healing of the name

O longing of the branches to lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries to purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it, the penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb

And while the structures crumble, just let the women speak
Come healing of the humble, come healing of the weak

O let the heavens hear it, the penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb

On August 20, 2018, Pope Francis published a Letter to All the Faithful.

Here is a poignant commentary on Pope Francis’ letter that articulates many of my own deepest feelings and emotions.

An agonizing reflection by a faithful Catholic is here.

For those who seek a broader historical analysis to how we got here, read Massimo Faggioli‘s thoughtful piece.

And then there is our own Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair. This is what he has to say in a CBC article on the pope asking for forgiveness in regards to revelations of abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania:

This makes me wonder why such a request for forgiveness was not made of the several thousand Survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools who were abused by priests. Less than 1000 non-Indigenous children in Pennsylvania apparently are entitled to the Pope’s personal request for forgiveness, but when given the chance, he declined to issue even a simple apology to the many thousand more Indigenous victims in Canada. Survivors are being abused once again.

August 27, 2018. Another agonizing reflection on: “Why stay?”

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Marriage: Doorway into God

Wedding Homily for Brody and Josephine
Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 34, Romans 8:31-35, 37-39, Matthew 5:1-11

So here we are, summoned at the proverbial moment’s notice. Just this past May, Brody finally had the courage to propose. Wow, great, replied Josephine, and then insisted on a summer wedding, with barely 3 months to prepare! Great joy, mixed with grumble, grumble could be heard in a few corners. How to get ready in such short time?! But a loving army rallied and here we are. Joy has won! Your love, Josephine and Brody, is finally ready to be shared and celebrated with the world.

The beauty and attraction of idealism comes through at most weddings, including this one. Even in the face of high divorce rates, women and men keep making the radical choice of a lifetime commitment in matrimony. Some call it foolish; others call it holy. I’m guessing that most couples like you, Brody and Josephine, have big portions of both foolishness and holiness.

But why does the Church call marriage a sacrament? A sacrament is an action or thing which makes the invisible God visible and tangible through human and material things. In other words, a sacrament is a doorway into God. God’s first sacrament is creation itself; many of us easily experience a divine presence in nature. Later today we will continue this celebration at our farm near Cochin.
If you haven’t been there before, rest assured that you that you will easily sense God’s hand in the beauty of that place.

God’s fullest human sacrament is Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us what it means to be fully human. But how does this pertain to marriage? In two ways. First, as physical, bodily creatures we cannot see God directly with human eyes. God is pure Spirit. But God desired to make his own mystery visible so … God branded the divine image and likeness right into our bodies by creating us male and female, as we heard so eloquently in the first reading from Genesis. God is etched into our DNA, so to speak. This makes the human body a sacrament, a doorway into God. Every human body, every woman and man present here today
is a reflection of God’s loving nature and purpose.

While Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel, the Beatitudes, are well-known and well-loved by so many (I will come back to them later), it is our second reading that contains some important keys to a good marriage. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? asks Paul in his Letter to the Romans, and to us. Well, maybe a rhetorical question, because nothing can separate us from God in Christ Jesus. However, while your marital love will feel indestructible today, Brody and Josephine, many things will try to separate you from one another. Despite today’s joy over our two people in love, human love, including marital love, is fragile and vulnerable, exposed to forces of division and strife, jealousy and resentment.

Josephine and Brody, your decision to formalize your marriage covenant before God and in the presence of God’s holy people is important. This public commitment will serve as an anchor to ground you in stormy times and in times of alienation and pain. You are today committing to live your love as a Gospel witness in the world through the three C’s modeled by Jesus: commitment, communication, and compassion.

The vows and promises you make today transform your relationship into a sacrament. God who created all things, who sent Jesus to reveal the fullness of human flourishing and the depth of God’s love, now transforms your marital love into a visible sign of God’s love for us all. Your commitment today touches hearts because it speaks of God’s eternal love for us. Making love and giving life are divine activities, and your marital union will now reflect that holy work.

And this is where Jesus comes in. For making love and giving life was what Jesus was about, in ways far deeper and greater than only marriage. Jesus came so that we could see God in action. His life, his teaching and witness, his unjust and cruel death, and his resurrection are living testimony to the power of self-giving and sacrificial love. If you want to know me, God says, look at my Son Jesus who is the manifestation of my mercy, grace and love.

Love is God’s commodity of choice. It’s all we live for and it’s all we die for. It’s all we get to take with us in death – love given and received. And at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus revealed the extent to which God’s love has been poured out for us. “This is my body,” he said, “broken for you, my blood poured out for you.” No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for friends. The sacrament of marriage invites you into this holy gift of self, laying down your life for one another out of love and for the salvation of the whole world.

St. Paul asks another rhetorical question: Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? (…) … You are exchanging vows and promises today.  But vows are not magic, and they’re only a beginning. Your vows will need revisiting many, many times throughout your life together, because they will be tested through hardship, peril and distress. The vows will indeed provide an anchor in times of doubt, and they will challenge you greatly in times of conflict. Finally, these vows will lead you deeper into the image and likeness God has placed in each one of you.

A few years ago I met A.J. and Patsy Felix, two aboriginal elders from a northern First Nation. And if you hang around with these two long enough, you will hear about their marriage. A.J. and Patsy are a great example of how marriage can deepen through the fires of distress, hardship and conflict. One day A.J. couldn’t stand himself anymore as an alcoholic and abusive person. So A.J. told Patsy to sit down because he was going to tell her who the man she married really was. A.J. told Patsy everything, holding nothing back. Patsy’s reaction was to get physically sick, and she threw up. Patsy did not talk to him for a week. A.J. gave her the space she needed by going for long walks. After a week, Patsy told A.J. to sit down because she was going to tell him who the woman he married really was. Patsy proceeded to tell him everything, holding nothing back. Now it was A.J.’s turn to get angry and not talk to her for a week. After several weeks of coming to terms with the pain in one another’s lives and hearts, A.J. and Patsy decided to build a sweat lodge together. They shared a sweat to let go of all that had harmed their spirits and that was harming their marital union. In their own cultural way, A.J. and Patsy were healed and reconciled. They have been reaping a deeper love, respect and affection for each other ever since. They now live in the intimacy of their love and in the knowledge that nothing needs to separate us from one another or from God. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can now see right into the heart of God. What we see there is mercy and compassion, humility and unconditional love, forgiveness and total non-violence.

Marriage therefore consists of several types of “RINGS:”
– The Engagement Ring
– The Wedding Ring
– The Suffer-Ring
– The Endue-Ring

Brody and Josephine, like A.J. and Patsy,you too will learn to grow into and give concrete expression to your wedding vows in the day-to-day living – sometimes the hard way. As you live into your wedding vows the Church offers you the Eucharist as the holy food of self-giving love on the journey of your life together. After you make the divine promises of marriage to one another and in the presence of all of us here, you will bring up the bread and the wine as an expression of this gift of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of God’s own self-giving in the person of Jesus. Take and eat this holy food often, not only physically but also spiritually. Eat and drink at the Eucharist and, in the words of St. Augustine, become what you eat: unconditional love and mercy for one another and for the world. Take and eat, take and drink, so that your marriage can grow into that same “Eucharistic” self-giving love in order to make God visible in our broken world and to bring healing and wholeness into that same world.

Then you will learn to embody the blessings of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers … And so echoing St. Paul, we can then say that in all these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us. For we are convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN

  • Heartfelt thanks to the local RC bishop who gave permission for me, an Anglican priest, to share this homily in my God-daughter’s Roman Catholic wedding Mass.
  • The story of A.J. and Patsy is used with permission.
  • Photo Credit for Bridal Party image: Chelsea Cameron of Lovestruck Photography

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Ecclesial Cross-Pollination

Those of you who know me, know that I live with a seed grower (Prairie Garden Seeds) whose daughter is following in her father’s footsteps. So the seed language kind’a rubs off on me — I can’t help it. Once in a while, though, that language actually sheds a delightfully new light on church-stuff. Hence the title of this reflection.

Recently I preached on Ephesians 4:1-16. Especially verses 1-4 are classic words in ecumenical circles: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

It is a massive embarrassment to confess that, over the course of 2,000 years we Christians have utterly failed … utterly failed to live up to this urgent command.  Too often we have acted as though the purity of the church could only be achieved/preserved by dividing, by walking away from each other, by denouncing one another, until the only ones left are those who look, talk, think, and act … like us. Differences are no reason for divisions! Spirit-given differences are not a problem but are God’s good gift so that together we can learn how to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). God’s calling, the unity of the church, in all its diversity, is God’s gift. How have we distorted and denied this gift! We have outright condemned the gifts of others – often and harshly. Paul’s words therefore should be painful, really painful.

Divisions in the church betray God’s overflowing grace. Divisions in the Body of Christ reveal our self-centeredness: we prefer to be right in our own eyes. We have no time or interest in others, we don’t want to bother learning how to love those who are genuinely different, whether that involves our atheist neighbour, or the congregation down the street, or our brother/sister in the next pew.

Fortunately we can slowly breathe a collective sigh of relief: in the past 100+ years we have been learning to reclaim our God-given unity with fellow Christians. We are working hard to heal the wounds of divisions. We are helping each other to regard differences not as dividing, but as the gifts of God to build up the Body of Christ. Reconciliation and healing, unity in diversity, are the new ways of being church today – whether this pertains to our Indigenous sisters and brothers, to our gay and lesbian fellow-Christians, or to relations among the church traditions.

This summer Anglican Bishop Rod Hardwick from the Qu’Appelle Diocese cycled across Canada (yes, Victoria to NFL) in 62 days (completed on July 31) to bring the message of healing and reconciliation to all he encountered. In the past fifty years numerous ecumenical agreements and milestones have been achieved on local, regional and global levels in the church. Shared ministry arrangements are growing, such as my own Anglican/Lutheran partnership in Watrous; inspiring examples of recognizing each other’s gifts and of healing Christ’s Body on earth. Last year’s world-wide events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation were a shining witness to Catholics and Protestants recognizing Christ in one another, from our own small parish studies, right up to Pope Francis himself. Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, to join the Lutheran World Federation in prayer. Francis co-presided in prayer with the Archbishop of Canterbury and together they commissioned 18 pairs of Anglican & Catholic bishops for the work of reconciliation and healing between our traditions.

Then just as I was enjoying well-deserved time off this summer, a new ecumenical document was released: Walking Together On The Way, written by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Given the ecumenical animal I am, I didn’t waste time. I read the entire document while relaxing in my backyard (and I’ve passed it on to my RC colleague for his summer reading!). I was utterly surprised and delighted at the message in this text. Compared to other ecumenical texts, this one differs significantly in content, tone and methodology. More than any other, the document truly does justice to Paul’s words to the Ephesians.

What is so different, you may ask? Well, instead of stating the usual, “these are the gifts from our tradition that you need in yours,” it reversed the sentence/ question: “what gifts do you have in your tradition that we need in ours?” The entire text is marked by a profound trust and appreciation for the other’s witness to Christ and the Gospel. This appreciation is then coupled with a new, deep humility and honesty about one’s own denominational weaknesses and shortcomings. This is the first official document that applies the principles of what has come to be known as Receptive Ecumenism: Instead of asking what other traditions need to learn from us, we ask what our tradition needs to learn from others, and what we can receive from others which is of God.

This approach requires an ‘ecclesial examination of conscience’ with all the challenging implications of those Gospel words – the courage to be self-critical, to make humility a virtue, to risk openness to conversion, reconciliation and healing.  Here is truly a refreshing wind blowing in ecumenism-land, opening new pathways towards realizing the unity Christ won for us. While this approach is particularly courageous (and therefore new) for the Roman Catholic Church – which is not known for readily admitting shortcomings or errors – every tradition falls into traps of self-righteousness and arrogance. In fact, faced with difference, each of us can fall into the same trap. It’s not easy to stay out of that trap but it’s mighty important lest we betray our baptismal commitment to follow Christ. What would happen if instead of distancing ourselves from different people, different opinions, different perspectives, we learn to seek that of God in the difference? Ecclesial cross-pollination – do you see it?

And so, while Paul admonishes the Ephesians and us, his words don’t spell despair. In verse 13 Paul recognizes that we are still growing toward maturity. If that growth depended on ourselves, we would be doomed. But Paul reminds us that we are held by the calling of God, we are given to one another by the Spirit, and we are united in the Lord who is head of the whole body. The church’s growth into Christ (verse 15) is God’s gift and God’s promise. We have not yet grown up, but it is happening as we continue to foster relationships across differences, encouraging ecclesial cross-pollination, as we encounter one another at the Holy Supper, as we hear and sing the holy Word, as we reach out to meet the needs of the world, and as we serve in the ministries of the church. As Martin Luther once wrote:
This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well, not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.

  • Excerpt from the new ARCIC document:
    It is our hope that Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal will be a part of an ongoing process of honest self-reflection and growth. In their 2016 Common Declaration, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby declared: ‘While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred. In our trust and joy in the Holy Spirit we are confident that dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his Church.’ It is important to make clear that by ‘together’ the Commission envisages each communion attending to its own structures and instruments, but aided by the support and example provided by the other communion. The sense is of our two traditions each walking the pilgrim way in each other’s company: ‘pilgrim companions’, making their own journey of conversion into greater life but supported by the other as they do so.

    Prairie Encounters

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Pressing a Response

Several friends and readers have been asking for my thoughts about the recent media coverage on Jane Kryzanowski, a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) movement and soon to be ordained a bishop in that movement (July 21, 2018).

I share with Jane the long and painful, passionate and intimate journey into embracing a priestly call within a church that does not recognize or bless such a call. While Jane has chosen to follow a route that places her outside of a traditional ecclesial structure, I have moved to another one, i.e. the Anglican Church. How are such decisions made, and is one better than another? How do we even know that our priestly calling originates in God when the Church denies that possibility? How do we engage the spiritual challenges that come with each path? How do we honour those who choose different trajectories, especially ones we might disagree with? Where is God in paths that make others shake their heads in disbelief?

Our response to such questions varies widely according to personality and temperament, background and opportunities, life experience, spirituality and passions. And so I can only speak from my own history and understanding. In the 26-year dance with my priestly vocation I have run the gamut of responses: from outright denial to trying to run away from God (yeah, I met Jonah on the way), from bargaining with God and minimizing the serious nature of the call, from doubt to fear to finally a deep, all encompassing yes.

One of the paths I indeed explored several years ago was the RCWP movement. I engaged extensive conversations with a member of that movement and entered serious discernment for a short time before turning away from that path. Why? First of all, I am not a political activist by nature. This has been true in all areas of social justice, contentious issues and difficult ethical topics. It doesn’t mean that I am unengaged or disinterested, quite the contrary. My mode of engagement is different, more direct and invisible. My engagement has not often taken the shape of standing on ramparts, disrupting public gatherings, joining protests or lobbying church officials. My primary call and inclination has been to serve direct needs on the ground, to honour the earth through simple living off the land, and to engage pastoral opportunities in unassuming ways; I tend to leave the heavy political lifting in both church and society to others. Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls.

While outsiders may see the RCWP movement primarily about public protest, I am aware that this is not its self-understanding. Its call to witness to injustice within the church is expressed through fostering a renewed model for priestly ministry and through serving direct needs on the ground, especially with those who feel alienated from the institutional church. Regardless of this noble purpose, priesthood with the RCWP movement would have felt to me like adding a political dimension to what I saw in essence as a call to serve the faith community. My priestly call felt too precious and too intimate to be tossed to and fro, potentially subjecting it to unpredictable seas of ecclesial confrontation. My desire for parish-based pastoral ministry was far greater than engagement in political activism.

I also struggled with what seemed a rather weak structure of discernment and accountability in RCWP. This aspect has surely evolved and matured since I last engaged its counsel. Discernment and accountability is both a communal and personal matter. I wondered about how to sustain a genuine priestly spirituality, and how to work for reform when the official ties with the existing church are forcibly severed.

I became acutely aware that the pastoral trust and opportunities I was enjoying in parish, diocesan and ecumenical ministry were quite unique; not every RC woman so called had access to these open ministerial spaces. Maybe these open spaces were there for good reason. Joining RCWP  would incur automatic excommunication, resulting in closing the open spaces within every ecclesial  structure, Roman Catholic and otherwise. Ironically, moving to the Anglican ecclesial community does not come with the same stigma. Despite what’s on the books about invalidity of orders, Rome’s 50+ year commitment to formal dialogue and close relations with Anglicans, including clergy, bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury leave little doubt about its practical recognition of Anglican Orders and the Anglican Communion’s Gospel witness.

Paradoxically, the realizations arising from my RCWP exploration clarified my pastoral call and priestly heart with that uncanny peace the world cannot give. I gratefully acknowledged that I had ample opportunities to serve God’s people, while my spirit was guided and nourished from the priestly vocation in my soul. God affirmed the call inside, as well as how I was to continue living that call on the outside.

I discovered that, despite the prohibition on ordination, my ministry career could be surprisingly fruitful. This was possible in part thanks to a deepened understanding of sacraments, encompassing every occasion in which I could facilitate an embodied encounter between God and a person in need. I learnt that priestly ministry need not be limited to the institutionally ordained, that it could be deeply life-giving and love-giving even in the most restrictive circumstances. To increase the probability of such fruitfulness I chose daily to surrender to God, chose not be victimized by the pain but let it teach and hone my spirit, to keep my ego out of the driver’s seat, and to ground my experience in Christ Jesus. While I share the vision and the vocation with RCWP women, and while I certainly gained a greater understanding of what leads one to choose this ordination route, my path was clearly a different one.

But, you may ask, was this response not a capitulation to an oppressive ecclesial system? Was this not a cop out on my part, a cowardly supporting of the status quo? For some, this would have been so. For me, not so. Instead, guided by Scripture and prayer, good mentoring and challenging self-reflection, this response lead me to develop a robust spiritual resilience in the midst of an unjust ecclesial situation. I grounded my priestly identity in God, and only secondarily in the church. I developed skills to avoid feeling victimized by an unjust ecclesial practice and to help me rise above ecclesial limitations, skills that continue to serve me well even now as an Anglican priest.

Undoubtedly there is an ecclesial tension within Roman Catholicism when it comes to the ordination question for women. Our own Scriptures and tradition, our own Pope Francis, continuously remind us of the God of surprises, the God who doesn’t fit into our limited boxes of understanding and interpretation. We embrace God in a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed the radical nature of God’s grace and mercy for all people. Jesus, God’s grace in the flesh, engaged people in need, touched clean and unclean people alike, to the scandal of the religious establishment. He was in many ways a breaker of those human rules that did not serve God’s reign, and thus still continuously calls us to a higher standard of justice, wholeness and integrity.

Every time Pope Francis emphasizes that God keeps doing new things among us, I think of the priesthood for women. In his homily at the closing of the 2014 Synod on the family, Pope Francis said: “God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.” Well, God may not be afraid of new things, but church leaders seem to be. However, time is a necessary discernment tool in both personal and ecclesial development. Time will test the new thing God is doing in women such as Jane and myself who experience a divine call to priestly ministry. All we are asked to do is to be a faithful steward of the tiny part entrusted to us in this larger ecclesial drama, and leave the rest to God.

In order to live this tension creatively, freely and faithfully we need a long view, one that extends beyond our own few years on this planet. But I see a uncanny irony in Rome’s certainty that women cannot possibly be ordained when considering the following words from Pope Francis: If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

There is no denying that each of us can be called onto different paths to fulfill a similar purpose, even if we find ourselves shaking our heads at one another’s choices. Whether inside or outside traditional ecclesial structures, we are all in this together. There is that of God in everyone and in every choice motivated by love. As long as the primary driving energy is love and humility, grace and mercy, with anger, bitterness and resentment surrendering to these four, each person’s journey is deserving of trust and respect despite our own misgivings.

We need to learn to think and say with Pope Francis, who in turn of course echoed Jesus, when he said: Who am I to judge? I share Pope Francis’ dogmatic certainty: God is truly in every person’s life. Taking this reality seriously, my own discomfort or disagreement with paths and choices others take can then become God’s invitation to deeper self-reflection and ongoing grounding into God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who am I to say that God does not use everyone to further God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy? Would that we can afford one another this mutual trust and respect even when finding ourselves on different routes of life.

  • Here is a personal account by Christine Haider Winnet who joined the RCWP movement.

Prairie Encounters

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