Transformed Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the beat goes on …

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Mysterium Tremendum

It’s that time again — musing about Eucharist, ordination and church. After all, my own ordination to the diaconate is approaching. It has been a long journey to this time and place; a deep joy and fullness is overtaking my heart. At the same time, I find my heart super-sensitive to critical comments. I was stung by one recently that went something like this:

A friend cited two reasons for not taking communion in an Anglican church. First he highly doubted whether Anglicans really believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that they truly believe to receive the actual body and blood of Christ. Second, he feels that he cannot receive in a church that is not “in communion” with Rome.

I replied by referring to the substantial agreement on the Eucharist that exists between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The following excerpt is taken from one of these agreements: “We believe that it is of utmost importance for the clergy and laity of our two Churches to acknowledge their substantial identity in the area of Eucharistic doctrine, and to build upon it as they go forward in dialogue. Whatever doctrinal disagreements may remain between our Churches, the understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is not among them.”

“I’m not interested in ecumenical documents,” my friend fired back. “I’m interested in the actual beliefs of the people. A lot of Anglicans don’t even think it is a Mass. And the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice is not one of the key elements of Eucharistic theology as far as I am concerned. You either believe in transubstantiation or you don’t. And the Anglican church, as a whole, does not. Individuals within it do. That’s not a position that makes any logical sense as a basis for inter-communion.”

The exchange stung, piercing the bone of my heart. The above comments cut to the heart of my own experience of and faith in the Eucharist as well as my 25-year journey with a priestly calling. In less than eight months, I will be presiding at the Eucharist as a priest in the Anglican Church, pronouncing the sacred words in the community of faith: “This is my body, my blood.” I continue to cherish my Catholic faith, especially in the Eucharist.

First of all the argument about being “in communion” with Rome. While respecting the RC position on this, I also know there is no Scriptural foundation for the ecclesial communion concept the way it is applied to receiving the Eucharist in one another’s churches. I know that Rome consistently holds that unity at the Eucharistic table can only arise as a result of ecclesial unity. But that does beg the question: how do we know that we have achieved enough unity to share the table of the Lord? And who gets to determine this? We now have some substantial and significant ecumenical agreements between Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans that clearly state that the current differences no longer need to be church dividing.

Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus as sharing himself indiscriminately with all types of people, regardless of criteria for full communion. It is Pope Francis who insists that we trust the unifying and healing power of the Eucharist as a “powerful medicine for the weak.” So continuing to limit access to this unifying and powerful medicine in one another’s churches seems to set up a contradictory logic. The Eucharist is Jesus’ banquet of complete self-giving; he is the host, the church is merely its servant.

The fact that some Anglicans deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not make it official Anglican theology nor is it an exclusively Anglican phenomenon. Roman Catholic theology holds fast to the same understanding of Real Presence in the Eucharist, yet some Catholics are sharing the same doubt and ignorance that my friend is so quick to place at the feet of my Anglican sisters and brothers. Is Jesus really more fully present in a Roman Catholic Eucharist than in an Anglican one? Both traditions cite the literal Words of Institution within Eucharistic Prayers that bear close family resemblance. Rather than argue about which Eucharist has more of |Jesus, should we not be more concerned with “reverse transubstantiation” as Kelly Pigott explores so poignantly in an article with a rather misleading title?

And what role does the faith of the communicant play in grasping this concept of Real Eucharistic Presence? The Anglican reverence for the individual’s capacity of faith allows for the person to appropriate the Eucharistic mystery of Real Presence in whatever way they can. This comes through in lovely language in the prayer that accompanies the distribution of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful. (Order for Holy Communion, Book of Common Prayer)

In her seminal work The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila said: Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone; for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us. Our outward comportment and behaviour may be better than theirs, but this, though good, is not the most important thing: there is no reason why we should expect everyone else to travel by our own road, and we should not attempt to point them to the spiritual path when perhaps we do not know what it is. Even with these desires that God gives us to help others, we may make many mistakes, and thus it is better to attempt to … try to live ever in silence and in hope, and the Lord will take care of His own.

Do any of us really and fully grasp Jesus Christ’s self-giving to the point of death? I do not expect to ever fully exhaust the meaning of this profound mystery. Growing into Anglican spirituality is fostering within me a deeper humility along with a greater reticence to pass judgment on how others understand and live their Christian faith. Some will call this wishy-washy and “Anglican fudge.” But maybe one person’s maturing in faith only looks wishy-washy to those who feel overly secure in their own convictions. When all is said and done, I can only stand humbly before a mysterium tremendum.

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Come to the Feast

Come to the feast of heaven and earth here at the table of plenty.
God will provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty.

I see them Sunday after Sunday: women, men and children approaching the table of the Lord to eat the bread from heaven and drink the cup of salvation, the weekly parade of virtues and weaknesses, of gifts and sins (characters and descriptions are fictitious):

  • Harry, the man with the cane, lost his wife last year and is drinking away his grief.
  • Carrie, a young mom, struggles to make ends meet but in the process spends a lot of dollars on smoking cigarettes.
  • And Lorin, the teenage boy, is heavily burdened with the knowledge that a one-night date resulted in a pregnancy.
  • Gary is sick and tired of casual gay sex; he wants a permanent relationship but doesn’t know how.
  • So good to see Mavis again; I wonder if she’s over her broken marriage yet.
  • And then there is Mac, who is now flirting with several women at once – why not?
  • Once in a while I see Marissa and Peter – I can usually tell when it’s been another one of those violent outbursts the night before.
  • Cynthia is a regular, beautiful woman inside and out. Her same-sex partner does not support her Christian devotion, a cause of heartache in their relationship.
  • Poor James and Cindy: they’re only here because their parents make them come. Slouched in the pew, they clearly have no interest and claim no faith.
  • Jane and Mark’s marriage has long lost its flame; despite the death of their love, they stay together out of convenience and “for the kids.” Their lifeless faces speak volumes.
  • And see that man with the big white mustache? That’s George; he’s 75 and lives with Martha, 73, and says that at their age why bother getting married.
  • Arthur was baptized as a child, but hasn’t been to church for well over 50 years. Events in his life prompted him to give the church another chance even while he remains suspicious of any organized religion.
  • Joan has flaunted the Church’s teaching on birth control in more ways than one: not only does she use contraception, she’s had two abortions.
  • Anna, at 19, comes to church but is filled with scepticism about the meaning of it all. She receives communion without quite knowing whether it’s “real.”

And on and on and on … a motley parade of humanity. Human flaws everywhere, failure and sins galore shuffle to the front, famished for divine grace in food and drink. God’s holy meal — primary sacrament of reconciliation.

Each son and daughter of God, forgiven by Jesus in the Eucharist – Lord, have mercy.
None of us come to Christ’s table with a perfectly clean slate; but, praise God, Jesus himself wipes the slate clean. – Christ, have mercy.

Jesus had no trouble with sinners; it was the hypocrites he couldn’t stomach. – Lord, have mercy.

Jesus turned no one away … no one: “Take and eat, Take and drink, this is my body, my blood, given for you and for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.” God’s own holy table with food from heaven for sinners …

In the face of daily sinful behaviour in baptized and unbaptized alike, it is a miracle that God desires us at all. God has claimed us in baptism for himself in Jesus. Baptism is the door to the sacrament of Holy Communion. In baptism God makes us worthy and righteous. In Holy Communion we receive divine medicine to heal, restore, reconcile us into right relation.

The Eucharist, although the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 47)

Can we say yes to all of the above? I certainly can, especially now as part of the Anglican family of Christian disciples. As a Roman Catholic I was needled by persistent, uncomfortable questions. I would see a discrepancy between Catholic Eucharistic teaching as articulated so eloquently above by Pope Francis on the one hand and Roman Catholic regulations of practice at the communion table on the other. With humility and sincerity of heart, I would ask … why does the “sin” of ecclesial divisions, along with the “sin” of divorced and civilly remarried, seem to fall into a category altogether different than any of the horrendous things each of us can secretly bring to the Holy Table every Sunday? Christ’s blood courses through everyone’s firmament and was shed so that ALL sin may be forgiven every time we remember how he loves us even to this day.

Is it because certain sins are more “public” than others? Is it because we know who is and who isn’t “in the fold” even though the Roman fold is nowhere near the entire fold? How can the Eucharist release its healing and unifying power if it is withheld in precisely those situations and for those persons most in need of that healing and unifying power? Why do certain sins, such as the ones of ecclesial divisions and civilly remarried Catholics, get singled out? I mean let’s be honest, an X-ray of hearts in the weekly communion procession would easily reveal how unprepared, how unworthy, and how inadequate we all are to receive the heavenly food.

But most of us don’t tell. So we approach the holy table in great spiritual need and without anyone deeming us unqualified to receive the heavenly medicine of soul. Why penalize those who follow Christ in another room of his mansion, or who find happiness in a second marriage, while possibly much greater sins come to the table unnoticed?

Setting criteria and boundaries on reception of Eucharist is very risky. We can easily become gatekeepers instead of servants. We can all too easily set ourselves as judge over one another, as arbiters of grace instead of its facilitators. Does “policing” the table of the Lord not mock the unity Christ won with his own sweat and blood? Does barring God’s table not reveal a lack of trust in the reconciling power of the Eucharistic offering of Christ? Ecclesial divisions and marriage break-ups are a result of sin, not the outcome of God’s intent. Every time we use divisions to keep us from sharing God’s holy meal – the medicine for our souls – we become complicit in the very sin that caused these divisions in the first place. Human divisions of any sort cannot be resolved in human ways. That is precisely why Jesus came; Christ won the victory over human divisions, ecclesial and otherwise.

Jesus poured out his life so as to overcome all division and strife. How did we get from Jesus who scandalously ate with sinners and rif-raf to a fenced-in holy table? Is it not a violation of the highest order to the integrity of Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice on the cross to use his holy banquet as a human ledger? Where do we find the audacity to evaluate who’s in and who’s out at the Table whose servant we are, not whose host? How is it that the sins of ecclesial divisions or of civilly remarried Catholics are treated differently than the general daily human sinful condition? And even if it is Christ’s will that we monitor the state of grace of the guests at his table, whose criteria do we apply? And who gets to decide and how if conditions are finally ready to share the Table of Mercy?

Every Sunday I, a sinner, share the Bread of Heaven and the cup of Christ’s blood with sinful, fallible, weak, flawed, devious, dishonest men, women and children. In solidarity we come forward, in repentance we seek God’s mercy through partaking in God’s sacred meal. As we eat and drink, Jesus feeds our souls, heals our spirits, and reconciles us to the Father.

I’m on the Canterbury trail now, having become part of a church family where all baptized sinners are welcome at the Holy Table of its host, Jesus Christ himself. Technically speaking my Anglican move bars me from the Roman Catholic Eucharist, even though my faith in and my hunger for the holy sacrament has not changed one bit.  I’m grateful to live in an RC diocese where a local Diocesan Policy is in effect on sacramental sharing with baptized Christians from other denominations, a policy especially generous towards inter-church families (my husband remains RC). No doubt there are glaring shortcomings in the Anglican tradition, but when it comes to the Eucharist the Anglican church family takes Pope Francis’ words literally and puts them into practice:

The Eucharist, although the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 47)

Come to the feast of heaven and earth here at the table of plenty.
God does provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty…

Lord, oh Lord, have mercy…

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Unlikely People, Unlikely Faith

Note: On this Roman Catholic Feast Day of Corpus Christi the Anglican liturgy features the encounter between Jesus and the Roman centurion from Luke’s Gospel. The centurion’s words, brought to Jesus by his friends, have become an integral prayer of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in preparing to receive Holy Communion. From my new Anglican perch, however, it strikes me as ironic that the prayer of the centurion, an outsider by all criteria, has become part of a communion practice that reserves the right to determine who is and isn’t worthy to receive. Jesus makes all of us worthy; I don’t think church membership or our own efforts to become worthy were meant to be part of the deal. Contrition yes, but anything else, no. Is Jesus’ reply to the centurion not a gentle rebuke on any attempt to restrict access to Jesus, the healing Bread of Heaven, not least on our tendency to judge others by “policing” the communion table? I mean, with all due respect, I’m just wondering …

Homily for May 29, 2016 on Luke 7:1-10
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Humboldt, SK

Today’s Gospel opens the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel. A very interesting chapter, as it turns out. The chapter begins with a Roman army officer, a Gentile, who believes that Jesus can heal his servant without even being there.  “Just say the word, and I know it will happen.”  Luke says that Jesus was amazed at his faith; he hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The chapter ends with an immoral woman crashing a dinner party where she kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with perfume. The hosting Pharisee is offended.  Jesus forgives this woman and says, “Your faith has saved you.” She believed that Jesus would forgive and accept her—He did. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill folks… or are they?

Let’s take a closer look at today’s Gospel account…

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and let my servant be healed. A close variation of these words can be heard regularly still today: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. It is the Roman Catholic equivalent of what the BCP (Anglican Book of Common Prayer) calls the Prayer of Humble Access, a prayer that occurs in the same place in the Eucharist, and that echoes another healing story, (Mt & Mk) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP) (“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs gather the crumbs that fall from the table.”)

How peculiar … how very peculiar that, of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one of the centurion’s faith (like the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith) that became a major part of the church’s liturgical prayer. The centurion represents the occupying force of Rome. He is an emissary of the oppressor. Even Luke’s original readers and those who first heard this story knew full well that there is one thing that hadn’t changed across those decades and that was that Rome was still in charge, still occupying the country, still enforcing its will upon people of all ranks and stations. This centurion is one who – as he himself admits – is used to giving orders in the Roman army and having those orders obeyed. He is, then, one of those directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.

But I wonder if that’s not part of the reason that this story is so important and appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. I mean, just because this man is in the Roman army doesn’t mean that he is incapable of doing good and having faith, does it? Clearly this man, representing the enemy, is already known for having done much good. Even while an outsider to Jewish society, and representing the oppressor, this centurion is clearly choosing not to act as an oppressor. Rather than letting his power and status make him arrogant and hostile, he chooses to have empathy and respect for those in his care, and makes friends with them. He even worries about his sick slave, one who has no power, no voice, no authority at all. He built a synagogue for the Jews living under his jurisdiction and they in turn appreciate his generosity. “He loves our people” (vs.5).  And he’s most considerate and respectful of Jewish religious practice. Anticipating that direct contact with Jesus might compromise  Jesus because of religious purity laws, this Roman soldier decides not to approach Jesus directly. That deference on his part shows profound regard for Jewish religious customs. Instead, he trusts elders and friends to deliver the message on his behalf. Indeed, the Jewish leaders in his town commend him to Jesus. And, the centurion trusts that Jesus, with a word, will heal the beloved servant. Finally, Jesus is amazed: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

What are we to make of this? First of all, we would do well to always and everywhere assume the best in people, no matter who or what they are, realizing that God loves all people – all people.

All people, literally all people, are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, not just Christians. Even if someone doesn’t share our faith in Jesus, they are our sister, our brother, in Christ. Even our enemies are worthy of our kinship and efforts to find common ground in the goodness of their heart. We need to continuously look for the good and the beauty, constantly looking for the gift and desire of faith in whatever way the other person expresses. Some well-meaning Christians get all tied in a knot and dismiss those who do not share our faith. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion even though – and here’s the clincher – there is absolutely no indication that the centurion becomes … a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus an authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, an authority that he needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seems particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. End of story.

So that kind’a makes me wonder …

We all know and love folks who don’t go to church, who aren’t particularly religious, or even Christian. For the most part, we’re talking about really good people. This story of the centurion is a good reminder that such people are also deeply loved by God, even if they don’t recognize or claim this love as coming from God. A priest once had an argument with a young scientist, who claimed that he didn’t believe in God. To which the priest calmly replied, “That’s okay, as long as God believes in you.”

God does not withdraw his love and mercy just because we don’t believe in God. Just because we don’t recognize God in our lives, doesn’t mean God cannot use us to do good in the world. Many of us love family members and friends  whose relationship to the church is sketchy at best. I have at least two of these wonderful human beings in my own life; they happen to be my own son and daughter. They, like the centurion, may not share my love for Jesus, but they sure know, like the centurion, when they or someone they know needs prayers: “Mom, will you say a prayer for so-and-so? They’re good people; they are worthy of having you do this.” Sounds familiar?

I’d like to think that the interaction between the centurion and Jesus reassures us that it’s okay that faith comes in different shapes and sizes, and certainly in different expressions, and that it is our job to recognize this … as Jesus did. I give thanks that centurion-like people are part of my life, people who I may not feel much in common with, yet people who, in their dealings with others, show respect and compassion, generosity and humility, nobleness and integrity just as the centurion clearly shows to the Jewish people,  to the soldiers under his command, and especially towards his slave. I pray that God would use my loved ones to do God’s will in the world (even if they wouldn’t call it that), and I pray that we would all have the grace and courage to affirm their goodness, sharing our gratitude as well as our joyful conviction that God loves them and uses them.

If we could sum up the one overarching lesson in the entire seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel it is this: the people we would expect to have faith, don’t; and those we wouldn’t expect to have faith, do. Today’s encounter reminds us not to put people in a box. God is at work in everyone—even in the most unlikely folk. Next, don’t ever let our religious pedigree get in the way of trusting Jesus. It’s easy to become a Pharisee—self-righteous, trusting in our religious heritage and traditions rather than trusting Jesus.

Can we foster the kind of openness that Jesus shows in today’s encounter? If we do, we too may be surprised by joy when we bump into faith in unexpected places and people. For Jesus continues to turn everything upside down and inside out. The church in fact supports that upside down vision of Jesus, even if it doesn’t always reflect that in its own practice. One of the ways it does that is by allowing the words of two outsiders, the words of two highly unlikely people of faith, the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman, to find  their way into major parts of our Eucharistic liturgies. It is with their words that we approach Holy Communion:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. …

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
AMEN

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Step by Step

With no less than three certificates declaring me a member of the Anglican Church now, it was very moving to be formally welcomed through the Rite of Reception in a beautiful celebration of the Easter Vigil – Christ is risen, alleluia!

So, you may ask — how am I doing in all this? Extremely well, thank you. This entire experience continues to be a fascinating school in spiritual lessons and especially, in discernment. The fruits of these lessons are God’s gracious gifts. Could it be that fruits such as these further authenticate the path now embarked upon? Could it be that such lessons can serve as markers in any situation, a way of assessing whether important life steps are truly being taken honestly and thoughtfully, with both personal and communal integrity? I’m sharing some of these lessons below, inviting you the reader to find parallels in your own ways of making life choices. This sharing is not an end in itself nor a way to draw attention to myself. Rather, my prayer and hope is that the sharing can help all of us develop healthy and wholesome pathways to fullness in Christ, which is the baptismal call of all God’s holy people.

I sensed the authenticity of this call into the Anglican family of faith from the moment this new beckoning began over one year ago; its time had truly come, it was for real, and it originated in God. That certainty never wavered – each day in this past year of preparation peace, clarity and joy were my constant companions. Even when faced with seeming “setbacks” or unexpected challenges this threesome provided an anchor, orienting me gently and surely to the learning and the growing here and now. There is a calm wholeness to the current move that was noticeably absent ten years ago when I first considered turning onto this Canterbury trail. God is so very good and full of surprises …

Honesty, intentionality and integrity are among the primary values I strive to live by. That is why the denominational transition did not proceed 10 years ago; I knew in my heart of hearts that proceeding then would have seriously lacked the personal and ecclesial integrity both I and the Anglican tradition deserved despite all my best efforts (and the support of many) in that intense love affair. I know others who have changed traditions out of frustration and anger; that did not sit right for me. I couldn’t ground such a switch in motives that were too mixed and utilitarian, in energy that was too negative, with too much unresolved ecclesial baggage tagging along like a stowaway. Even if no one notices on the outside, the fact is that I would know on the inside. And it would feel way too much like building my house on sand … Maybe that’s why I received three certificates — just to make sure the Anglican piece sticks this time … 🙂

For today is a different story. Don’t get me wrong though; the past ten years have been filled with rich ministry opportunities, both in RC and ecumenical circles, and I am deeply grateful for God’s faithfulness in all these years. But today is a new day, a new invitation. There is a distinct qualitative shift to the way the Anglican beckoning entered my life’s orbit this time: unexpected, unbidden and undeserved, yet playing intimately and skillfully the strings of my desire in ways calling forth the very best I can be for God and with God’s holy people. The beautiful gift of today’s undivided heart now makes possible a new capacity to embrace and surrender to whatever the future holds in peace, trust and joy.

Every Sunday, for two whole months before Easter, I made a 215 km round-trip to go to the mother church in this Anglican Diocese, St. John the Evangelist in Saskatoon, along with my sponsor. We joined other adults with their sponsors who were preparing for their final step in joining the Anglican Church (Confirmation in their case). After having coordinated RCIA in my years of RC pastoral ministry, it was interesting to now find myself on the other end of that process, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity.

Every Sunday we began the Eucharistic service with the entire congregation until, after the homily, the priest would call us up, pray a blessing over us and dismiss us. We would then go to the adjacent parish hall where we would have our catechetical session for the day. We shared prayer, our lives, our questions and thoughts about how to grow more fully into our common baptismal calling as Christ’s disciples. We learnt about the distinct features of Anglican discipleship in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus.

I thoroughly appreciated this preparation process; it was exactly what my heart and spirit needed, making the journey towards formal reception in a spirit of community and prayer. On the outside it maybe looked tiny and insignificant, esp. for me who has studied and ministered so extensively in many church settings, both Roman Catholic and ecumenical. I discovered and experienced the gift of slow, the meaning and power of an incremental and ritual “yes” Sunday after Sunday. Each deliberate step into this yes deepened and strengthened my decision in a most inclusive both/and way, i.e. without denying any of what was before but bringing it along in a new configuration – how very Anglican. And each Sunday my joy, peace and clarity grew in depth and breadth, enabling me to make the Anglican tradition my new home. Ritual truly does deepen one’s experience.

Hard as it was, I fasted from receiving communion for the two months of preparation at the Cathedral along with the other group members. This made Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil extra special, almost as a “first communion” all over again. What a nourishing gift the Eucharist can be to famished souls and parched spirits. This awareness grew steadily in the weeks of Eucharistic fasting. Sometime in early March, I attended a Eucharist on a weekday. I had become acutely aware of my hunger for the Bread from Heaven; here was an opportunity to receive and I so desired to do so. Yet receiving would have broken my solidarity with the group and would undoubtedly have affected my experience of receiving Holy Communion at Easter. I struggled in the pew with my famished spirit; even when I went up to the communion rail I still didn’t know what I would end up doing. But then I knelt down, crossed my arms across my chest, received a blessing,  and thanked God for the depth of my Eucharistic hunger – what a beautiful gift this awareness is now.

On Good Friday I sought out the sacrament of Reconciliation (yes, Anglicans can do this and some in fact do!). It was an emotional experience to name and leave behind all the hurts of the past, all those I have hurt and to forgive those who have wronged me. It was an opportunity to check for unwelcome and unhealthy stowaways in heart-mind-spirit, and to seek God’s mercy in ridding myself of these. I even asked forgiveness for things that happened ten years ago which, I learnt recently, have sown distrust in some Anglicans about today’s denominational change because of memories of feeling used and betrayed by my transition struggle at that time. Through tears of repentance God’s mercy flowed generously, setting me free for this new leg on the journey.

And so, my joy was full and deep in that Easter Vigil, fueled not only by a renewal of faith in the risen Christ, not only by the gracious hospitality of the Cathedral parish, but also buoyed by the supportive presence of my RC spouse, my oldest son, members of my Anglican home parish who made the 215 km round-trip just for me, and several Roman Catholic friends. How important community is …

Each step savoured and cherished,
each word pondered and chosen to perfection.
No running and rushing, no tripping or regrets …
Slow motion in momentous choices
adding spice and reflection, depth and meaning
while sprinkling clarity and peace
in heart and mind.
Infusion of courage and patience
in a spirit trembling in fear and joy …

Each slow step affirming yes
falling into a future known
only by tomorrow
featuring glowing colours
of pregnant promises of life
ever green, ever fresh, ever new…

And so, in confidence and trust, I surrender to a future known only to God. That is okay, for surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Saviour. (Isaiah 12:1-2)

Prairie Encounters

For previous reflections pertaining to my experience of denominational transition, see the following blog entries:

A Time of Transition

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments use the contact form below. For public ones, scroll down further to write your thoughts.