Winter in Church

My move from the Roman Catholic fold to the Anglican branch of the Christian family has been surprisingly smooth sailing. I’d like to think that several factors played a role in this ecclesial transition. While my reflection on these factors is articulated in previous blog entries, let me simply summarize them here.

One, the move was motivated, not by negative reasons away from Rome, but by clear positive reasons of sensing a deep call into the Anglican tradition. While I was drawn because of the possibility of fulfilling my priestly vocation, this was by no means the only motivation. It had better not be, for there was no guarantee that the Anglican bishop and the Anglican vocational discernment processes would recognize my calling as valid and suited for Anglican priestly ministry. I vividly remember realizing that my spirit was ready for the stretching and growing that the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship would afford me. The past nearly five Anglican years have only confirmed this.

Two, because of the above, I made sure that any negative ecclesial baggage was left behind or at least dealt with. The last thing Anglicans need is an angry, frustrated and resentful RC woman joining their ranks. What we do not allow God to transform, we transmit in unhealthy ways. It is one thing to experience righteous anger and frustration, but it is quite another to keep tapping that negative energy as a habitual way of life. I know other women who took their unresolved pain and anger with them into another denomination. While some may have good reason to do so, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for me.

Three, I was very intentional about sharing my denominational transition as an internal move within the Christian family of God instead of treating it as a family rupture. It is for this reason that a public liturgical ritual was celebrated to mark the denominational move, with an affirmation of our common baptism, and a ritual of “handing me over” to the Anglican family. I remember preaching at that liturgy, saying that, referring to Jesus’ words in John 14:2, I was only changing rooms in the Christian household, I was not leaving the house.

Finally, I have discovered that, while the institution no longer considers me a card-carrying Roman Catholic, my Catholic heart is alive and well. All the best and the finest of the Catholic tradition has gone with me in my spirituality, my theology and even in my ministry. I would be remiss to leave out the gifts and lessons learnt from intimate engagement, to this day, with our Lutheran siblings as well. In fact, the profound sense of ecclesial union/communion in my heart and mind tells me in unmistakable ways that I have not “left” anything or anyone. On the contrary, the Anglican move has expanded and deepened my Christian discipleship while I continue to drink deeply from the spiritual wells of my ecclesial family of origin.

So now, here I am, fully ordained and ministering happily in a rural community on the Canadian prairies. And the news broke a few months ago that this Anglican room in the Christian family home is rapidly emptying out, with its parishes in a major numerical free fall. What is it like to be a spiritual leader in a church that could see the lights go out in about 20+ years?

Well, I can honestly say that it is fascinating to be a part of a spiritual family that is told from all sides that its days are numbered. As for the causes of this numerical free fall, there are plenty of speculations out there, all vying for first rate attention. I feel no need to add my two-cents worth to this chorus, so I will simply limit this reflection to my own personal musings and spiritual experience.

First of all, church and ministry is about real people, real lives with all the joys and sorrows. Yes, my two parishes are small, unable to afford full-time ministry services even between the two churches. But in those small church families life happens, folks. And where there’s life, there’s love and hate, there’s joy and grief, there’s hardship and accomplishment, there’s hope and despair. Recently I celebrated with a 94-year old parishioner who still drives her own car. I delight in our 4-year old parishioner who, at every hymn we sing, steps un-self-consciously into the centre aisle and loses herself in a spontaneous and unique liturgical dance, much to the awe of all present. I attend to the sick and visit the lonely, bringing Christ’s holy food of communion and God’s mercy. I lend a listening ear to those overburdened and struggling with challenges too big to bear. I preach and preside at the Holy Eucharist, an act that fills me with reverence and awe every time. To feed God’s people with holy food and merciful words, to bring Christ’s gaze of love into hurting hearts, to pray the Holy Spirit into lost souls and lives — that holy work continues even in seasons of decline.

Second, there is a strange refreshing wind that begins to blow in seasons of diminishment and loss of influence. The wind of decline is pushing us on our knees, forcing a spirit of humility and self-examination. This honest knee-bending scrutiny is quite easy to avoid when we can take comfort, however false, in numbers and importance, whether that’s our parish, our theology or our tradition. In fact, humility retracts into the shadows when self-righteousness, superiority and pointing fingers assert themselves. We are reminded quite starkly that this is God’s church, and not our project for self-glorification. Given that we follow One who suffered death on a cross, we should not be surprised to suffer a similar lot. It is in fact quite biblical to become the counter-culture instead of being part of the culture that calls the worldly shots.

Three, there is a sense of moving closer to the early church, when Christians met in homes to break bread and share the Word of Life. The Christian community originated with very small beginnings; I wonder if becoming small again might allow us to recover what we lost when we grew too big. There is a sense of being pushed into one another’s ecclesial arms for sheer necessity. I think here of the many Catholic religious orders who are living their own diminishment, a diminishment that for some looks to become the end of their witness in church and world. The Anglican Church is not alone — we’re in this together. The sooner we admit this sober fact the sooner we can allow God to show us the way into the future.

The other thing to remember is that this numerical decline in institutional Christianity is not uniform across the globe. In fact, all mainline churches are experiencing significant growth in developing countries, which we refer to as the Global South. The Anglican Church is no exception. It is primarily in western cultures that Christian witness is waning. Guess what — we are not the center of the universe, far from it. Keeping the global view in mind helps to put our own diminishment in perspective; it might even raise different questions for self-examination than might otherwise appear.

In this sobering moment of organized religion’s decline in the western world maybe Christian unity might now get a fair chance, provided we are willing to carry burdens together (Gal. 6:2), to learn from one another, to confess our sins together before the cross of Christ, seeking mercy together. The most recent Anglican—Roman Catholic Document Walking Together on the Way considers us fellow pilgrims journeying at the summons of God’s Word. … Walking together means that, as traveling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness (Par. 21).

Asked how we should pray for the church, Canadian Anglican Primate Archbishop Linda Nicholls replied, “Pray for the Spirit to blow through the hearts and minds of everyone, and open our eyes to see where Jesus is calling us to be at work. It’s not that God isn’t there in the community already. And it isn’t that God isn’t calling us—sometimes we’re just expecting God to be in a different place, and so we don’t see God where God actually is. Pray for us to be flexible and open in how we express the gospel. And pray for that deepening of discipleship in us that will lead us there.

So, on our knees, let us pray, together, for one another, and for the world. Pray that we will be open to new wine in new wineskins, and in the process be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:32

Forgiven the Inexcusable

Imagine that today’s Scripture readings were proclaimed on the Sunday of our recent Anglican General Synod:
Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five? …. Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ And God answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ So suppose …. only twenty are found there ... Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose only ten are found there …’ (Genesis 18:20—32)

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened … (Luke 11:1—13)

In light of the intense emotional roller-coaster that was the recent Anglican General Synod, these examples and instructions about prayer sound like …. what? Foolish and unrealistic, as many went away with broken hearts and conflicting feelings. Some felt betrayed by God and by fellow Anglicans, as they asked and did not receive, searched and did not find, knocked and the door remained closed.

Whether on a grand scale such as General Synod or in the privacy of our own lives, when things don’t go our way, we feel betrayed and let down, discouraged and in doubt. We can easily feel that God is not listening, that other people are preventing God to answer our prayers. When we feel deeply about something, we crave and need not only God’s own blessing; we crave acceptance, recognition and respect from our communities of faith, from our church. The question is: how do we know we are praying for the right thing? And why does God not answer prayer, or so it seems? It is said that God always answers prayer – always. The answer can be yes – no – maybe – wait – or … something different, something we would never think of on our own.

No doubt, Abraham was scandalized by the sins of Sodom. Abraham could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole city to hell. But … he didn’t. Abraham did something much more scandalous: from a deep well of compassion for the people, Abraham pleaded … with God … to spare the city, despite its transgressions. So God, what if there are only 40 good people in it? What if there are only 30, or 20, or only 10? Imagine that… bargaining with none other than the Almighty! I wonder if Abraham already had a premonition of God’s saving work in Jesus and what C.S. Lewis would say millennia later: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”

The present pain in the Anglican LGBTQ+ community over feeling rejected by our church is enormous. On the evening of the vote on the Marriage Canon, when the results showed that the motion to redefine marriage had failed, the air was sucked out of the room, and quickly filled with weeping and wailing, esp. of the young delegates present.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

That night, our young people were crying, and many along with them across the country. While that same Synod made great strides in reconciliation with our Indigenous sisters and brothers, through a formal request for forgiveness for the spiritual abuse inflicted in the name of God, another group experienced deep spiritual harm. While that same Synod made great strides in ecumenical and interfaith relations, dialogue and alliances, another group felt cast out into the cold, bereft, robbed, of all that their hearts yearned for.

Teach us to pray, O Lord, into the tears and agony of this moment … What can we do? How do we pray into this painful space and into the many painful spaces of our lives and of our world? And how can we remain open to divine answers, answers that we could never think of on our own? God always reserves the right to provide answers that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Many times in my own life, I have stood at crossroads, wondering which way God wanted me to go. Some of those crossroads were pretty painful, caused by major melt-downs and crises. Times of betrayal, hurt and rejection are painful; they feel like God is hanging us out to dry…

But our God is a God of life and love. Our God is a resurrection God. First, by becoming one with us in Christ Jesus, taking on the human condition, becoming part of creation itself, God says in a loud voice: all that I create is good and destined for goodness and love. Yes, free will, that greatest of gifts from our loving God, did come with the rather distasteful side-effect of sin. But in Jesus, God showed us by example how to live in grace and how to stare down our own sinful patterns of behaviours, motives and actions. In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, God has declared once and for all: there is nothing that I cannot redeem, save and transform. In Jesus, even death was killed by love eternal.

In one of my own melt-down moments, caused by a brutal and abrupt termination of a pastoral position, a dear friend and mentor gently said: “I know your pain is real and raw, and it deserves to be honoured and respected. But I just want you to know that, once you are ready, our Saviour is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this pain.” And indeed, our Saviour did, once my heart was ready and open …

So I got thinking: what can our Saviour possibly teach us in this moment of pain in our church? What does our Saviour teach us in all seasons of pain – in our church, in our lives, in our world? Is rejection and abandonment by God the only way to interpret seemingly unanswered prayers? Sometimes the no is indeed from God, because God has something else in mind. Other times the no is caused by our blindness and obstinacy. Still other times, what looks like a no in fact conceals another way, a way that is hard to notice if we are fixated on only one desired outcome. In the midst of our melt-downs how can God open up another, deeper answer, an answer we cannot possibly dream up ourselves, an answer lived out in the witness of our Lord Jesus?

Christ himself was no stranger to rejection, scorn and judgment. And yet, Jesus refused to let that rejection define him or define his acting and speaking in this world. Deeply anchored in his God-given identity of love, he carried the tension … He carried the tension of rejection and misunderstanding and scorn without letting it define or destroy him or fill him with rage (except for a temper tantrum in the Temple). Jesus took within himself the anger and hatred and injustice and bitterness, and gave back … graciousness, blessing, mercy and love. Like a water purifier, Jesus carried the tension and injustice … holding the dirty, murky water of our sin, letting it pass through him on the cross, and returned the pure and safe, healing and cleansing water of God’s mercy …

Whew … Impossible? Yep. Impossible on our own? Yep. That is why now, more than ever, we need one another. Our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers need us. They need our unconditional love and mercy to lean on, so that their spirits can grow strong and resilient, so that they do not let rejection have the last word. For it is in community that we grow strong in our identity as God’s beloved son and daughter. It is in community that we confess sins and receive God’s healing. It is in community that we grow into God’s answers to life’s dilemmas. It is in community that God feeds our bodies and spirits with Christ’s own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It is in community that our spirit can grow in safety and beauty. It is in community that we can say to one another: let my faith and love carry you for a while as you weep and heal. It is in community that we plead with God, like Abraham, will you not save us, O God, even if only a few of us are righteous in your sight?

Listen to Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…”Because, “When you were dead in sin, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross… “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” In Christ, God has indeed … forgiven … the inexcusable … in us all.

This extravagant grace from a foolishly generous God eventually broke through at General Synod through the Indigenous presence. For many years now our church has been profoundly blessed by the faithful leadership of Indigenous elders who have tenaciously continued to walk with us, despite the historic spiritual and cultural harm we have caused them. While struggling to overcome their own inter-generational trauma Indigenous Christians have been diligent in pursuing reconciliation with the colonial church, even though the spiritual oppression inflicted upon them does not make us deserving of such a gracious pursuit. Why are they so persistent? Because of Christ…

Because despite all the harm we have inflicted, they have grasped the heart of Jesus, a heart that reconciles and heals. Our Indigenous sisters and brothers could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole church to hell. But they didn’t … instead they are in the business of forgiving the inexcusable in us all, because like Abraham, they have found a handful of righteous ones among us and are pleading on our behalf. And through that extravagant act of pursuing reconciliation, our Indigenous sisters and brothers are revealing the face of our merciful God. Despite the condemning headlines in the secular media about the intolerance and exclusion of the Anglican Church, the healing features of God’s mercy and grace entered the real and broken hearts of those gathered in the Synod hall …

All throughout Scripture God’s primary concern is clear: God is in the business of saving us from ourselves, time and time again and again, especially when we have reached the dead-end of our tricks and tactics, and are face to face with our own brokenness and mess. God is still in the business of pulling blessings from curses, love from hate, peace from violence, life from death. And God will do this again, can do this again, with our consent, and with our willingness to surrender.

And so yes, Lord, … teach us to pray, show us a way forward, a way that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Teach us to forgive … teach us to carry one another in love.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Homily preached on July 28, 2019
Genesis 18:20—32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6—15, Luke 11:1—13

Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

Prairie Encounters

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