Holding Tension

It’s not every day that I can say I know someone in the “higher ups.” But now it has happened. As coordinator for an ecumenical network of women in ministry, I have the great pleasure of knowing a wide array of incredible, faith-filled and gifted women serving Christ and his Gospel in various churches and ministries. Often I feel like sitting at their feet learning, soaking in their wisdom and beauty. One of these women, a pastor in rural Saskatchewan, has just been elected (on August 13) as the new Moderator of the United Church of Canada. I’ve had the privilege of working with Rev. Jordan Cantwell on a few ecumenical projects and have been impressed with her personality, her integrity and her giftedness.

I dare say that Jordan and I take a mutual liking to one another as women of faith and colleagues in ministry. There is, however, one area of Jordan’s life which I genuinely struggle with, and that is her sexual orientation and her marriage to another woman (sharing this fact is not violating any confidentiality, as it is fairly public). It is not that I outright condemn homosexuality, but I sincerely struggle to understand the concept of same-sex marriage from its theological, anthropological and biblical perspectives. I truly do not know what I seem unable to grasp; moreover, I find very few circles in which respectful discourse on the subject is possible without the smugness of the Christian right or me being labeled homophobic by the same-sex left, both sides lacking humility and respect.

Various parts of the world are clearly choosing to move same-sex marriage into the cultural and social mainstream. However, the Christian churches remain divided over the questions this rising tide is raising, or even resist wading into the questions, which in turn creates an insidious kind of dishonesty and shadow-world. What gives me hope that we can engage in honest and respectful conversations, however, are people like Jordan.

In a media interview a couple of days ago Jordan is quoted as saying: One of the things I bring that has been affirmed in me is an ability to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect. There is a lot of diversity in our church and there’s a lot of diversity in our world. And I try to bring curiosity before judgment, into situations where there’s deep disagreement … I actually find that often, underneath what looks like really disparate views are some shared concerns. ~ Rev. Jordan Cantwell in The Star Phoenix, Aug. 14, 2015

Sometimes we speak of someone as being “generative.” Such a person constantly generates life and energy as opposed to draining it. When applying this to the spiritual and ecclesial realms, we can ask what makes someone mature in the areas of faith and church.  It is precisely this kind of generativity that I see in Jordan’s personality and ministry. A mature believer creates spiritual energy rather than diminishes it, even in situations of disagreement and conflict.

Living generatively, of course, is not always easy to do, especially in painful or conflictual situations. We do not live in the best of all possible universes. This is true in families, communities, and churches. We are forever caught in situations less than ideal, full of tension, and fraught with potential for every kind of strife and conflict, self-pity and bitterness.

What are we to do when this happens? Spontaneously we are tempted in one of two directions: fight or flight. To run away and distance ourselves from the tension — “This isn’t worth it!” Or, to stay, but grow bitter and resentful and become, ourselves, a centre of anger and tension while regarding anyone disagreeing with us as the enemy. Neither of these is particularly generative.

There is, however, a “third” way, and that is to help carry that situation and transform it, or as Jordan put it in the above quote “to hear diverse voices and hold them together and hold them with respect.” In this third way we neither flee nor grow bitter, nor turn those who disagree with us into enemies of the worst kind.

Would that we could learn to stand together in the tension and hold it, just like Mary did under the cross of Jesus — neither fleeing, nor bitter, nor weak. The Gospels tell us that, as Jesus was being crucified, Mary stood under the cross. What was she doing there? Overtly, it would seem, very little. She was not trying to stop the crucifixion, protest it, or even defend her son’s innocence. She did not, it appears, say anything at all;  she just remained standing. That was significant. Standing, for the Hebrews, was a position of strength. Mary did not collapse under the cross in weakness; neither, it would seem, was she bitter.

So what was she doing? I’d like to think that under the cross, Mary was helping to hold, carry, and transform the tension, bitterness, anger, and darkness of that moment. Unlike the crowd, caught up in spontaneous emotion, she did not give back in kind — anger for anger, hatred for hatred, bitterness for bitterness, an eye for an eye, unfairness for unfairness. Rather, like a water-filter that purifies bad water by taking out and holding within itself the impurities, and then giving back only the pure water, she held the anger and hatred and gave back only graciousness and love. Real transformation in any relationship — friendship, marriage, family, church, community — takes place only when we remain standing in the situation, holding within ourselves the injustice and bitterness, the misunderstanding and condemnation, not giving back in kind, but instead giving back  graciousness, blessing, and love. That, by the way, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross: return mercy for murder, forgiveness for violence.

Would that we all, for and against same-sex marriage, learn this posture in our dealings with one another. I have a long ways to go, but I sure want to be such a person, esp. with those whose life choices challenge me. I want to foster a posture of curiosity and inquiry long before resorting to judgement and condemnation. Love too is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

And whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, let us entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future. Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong, as Sr. Janet Mock said recently, Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry. (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

The most important ambition is to foster a curious mind, a welcoming spirit and a loving heart while  asking the following questions:
• Where do we see the Holy Spirit?
• How does this action reflect God’s justice, God’s economy, God’s grace?
• Does this direction embody the truth of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture?
• How does this strengthen our relationships with one another in the church, in this country, to the land, to all our relations?
• Who is being left out/silenced? Who needs to be heard/included?
(inspired by the nomination Profile of Rev. Jordan Cantwell)

So Jordan, my friend now in the “higher ups,” welcome to the new ministry our gracious and loving God has entrusted to you. May that lovely Divine Spirit continue to stir your passion, and may you, like Solomon (who I preached on today to the Anglicans) be granted “an understanding mind, the ability to discern good from evil, and wisdom to see God in the face of your enemies.” (cf 1 Kings 3:3—14)

(A special thanks to Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, for his thoughts on generativity, Mary and holding tension, as written in the Preface of my first book Finding the Treasure Within.)

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Fight, Flight or … Embrace?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the
(Serenity Prayer, Twelve Step Movement)

When it comes to dealing with suffering, injustice and oppression, there are three long, winding, well-trodden paths in Christian spirituality and praxis; each one grounded firmly in the Gospel message of Jesus, yet each in a certain tension with the other two.

One is marked by kenosis, self-emptying, and embracing the cross of suffering and pain for the greater good of one’s soul and that of others – see Philippians 2:6-11. The other is marked by denouncing injustice and oppression, working – with God’s blessing – to set prisoners free, to liberate those exploited and violated by the sins of brothers and sisters far and near – see Luke 4:36-46 and Matthew 25:36-46. Alongside these two is a third one: if the injustice and oppression suffered is too damaging to our very being we may, if possible, remove ourselves from the situation – see Matthew 10:11-15.

How can we accept the things we cannot change and pray for courage to change the things we can? When illness or disaster upsets our lives, do we feel powerless and paralyzed, or do we try to accept our lot with some grace and courage? When another’s behaviour puts our safety and physical well-being at serious risk, do we change what we can and remove ourselves? When our neighbours struggle to put food on the table, do we feel compelled to reach out and share our resources, to change what we can? Do we also encourage our neighbour to seek further help, or will we have the wisdom to know that our advice would be unappreciated?

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:17-18)

While Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, he did not flinch or try to run when condemned to death. While he said that the poor will always be with us, he did identify with the least of those in need. While Jesus advised not to push when we or our message are not received, he himself walked to his own death precisely because he and his message were rejected.

Certain forms of injustice are universally condemned; countless individuals work to alleviate hunger and poverty, violence and unemployment for millions of people around the globe. However, many situations are not clear-cut.  A person feels put down at work. He is ignored; he lacks praise and encouragement. Is he to endure this as his cross or is this a sign that it’s time to find another job? Would we still tell a woman to stay with her abusive husband and work to make it better? That advice has created generations of permanently soul-wounded women and children.

St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted as having said: “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.” Contemporary schools in psychology, sociology and psychiatry place great value in being your true self, standing in your truth, and being integrated both inside and out.

What if outside circumstances make this goal nigh impossible to achieve? How do we know whether to work to make a situation better, to accept that change is impossible so instead use the situation to grow a deeper spiritual maturity, or to shake the dust off our feet and go elsewhere in order to come to full bloom?

Some perceive situations of injustice and willful ignorance within the Church; this can inflict a deep permanent wound in a person or even in an entire parish. What response most reflects God’s will – fight and protest, run and seek other spiritual wells from which to drink, or embrace the pain as one’s cross, hopefully leading to deeper union with the crucified Lord?

How does one define ecclesial injustice anyway? If a parish is deprived of the Eucharist on a regular basis (the only “right” Catholics have), does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when girls cannot be altar servers? If a pastor runs a parish like a military boot camp, does that constitute injustice? If women feel treated in inferior ways, does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when a gay couple is refused the church’s blessing on their union? If a married man or a woman feel called to ordained ministry but the church refuses them, does that constitute an injustice? Is injustice a subjective or objective experience?

Probably one of the most vexing examples lies in the gender disparity in the church. It is an undisputed fact that women’s fundamental human experiences – her wisdom and her ways of knowing, perceiving and living – are structurally invisible in church governance and teaching. While women form the bulk of the volunteer workforce in every parish around the globe, women’s voices and perspectives – theological, liturgical and spiritual – are simply not in the room when church leaders hammer out ecclesial documents on subjects which are binding for all Catholics, both women and men. A growing chorus of voices is denouncing this omission as a grave injustice, an insult to God’s image and likeness in women, Pope Francis included. Others, regarding this as part of the way God ordered male and female functions, perceive no injustice whatsoever.

Same situation, two diametrically opposed interpretations. The one group feels compelled by conscience to fight in rectifying the perceived wrong while the other group, equally in conscience, calls for submission to God’s way of ordering male/female functions and relations. Both groups are faith-filled Catholics who love the Church; both can support their basic positions from Scripture.

Which way to God’s will? What type of liberation did Jesus bring? Can liberation be defined objectively, outside of the particular circumstances of those who experience oppression and injustice? Do those who experience injustice have the prerogative to define what actions, behaviours and choices bring liberation? And if yes, what to make of liberating choices which challenge Church teaching?

If there is to be a liberating movement in Christ’s message regarding gender roles and relations, this movement needs to lead to fullness of life for both women and men. If Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity then now in Jesus “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

In order to activate such a liberating movement each follower of Christ may well choose a different path: fight to rectify a wrong, leave for greener pastures, or embrace the cross and graft one’s pain to the crucified Lord.  If we look at the Scriptures, we might see that Jesus may validate each of these choices, provided he guide us: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as he did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr


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