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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Window on the World

As I am re-reflecting on the Cathedral windows, preparing my meditations for public sharing, I just realized something: none of the windows depict the crucifixion … An oversight? Maybe, and maybe not … The risen Christ, whose Real Presence is given to us in the Eucharist, also reveals his Crucified and Real Presence  in the least among us, in those sisters and brothers crying out for deliverance and healing, whose death-cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” still echoes around the globe. Jesus’ agony in the garden, his death-cry on the cross, is still with us in chilling, shocking and horrifying ways:

in the millions of refugees walking to safety …
in the missing and murdered aboriginal women
demanding justice …
in the indigenous peoples of the world
trampled on by western interests
of consumerism and economic monopolies …
in the quiet neighbour suffering abuse and neglect
within the walls of a home
intended to be a haven of safety and peace …
in minorities stigmatized for being different
robbed of the right to fullness of life …
in victims of the sex trade and human trafficking …
in the earth crying out for justice and right relation …
in the extinction of countless species
due to human ravaging of resources …
in child soldiers seeking love and belonging
in all the wrong places and in the wrong ways …
in innocent people killed in bomb attacks
in the depletion and unjust distribution
of the earth’s gifts for all …
in death-dealing superiority of one race over another …
in merciless and cold policies from corporate board rooms …

The window depicting the Crucifixion of the Most Holy One does not need a place in churches and cathedrals. That window screams its stark truth on our television screens and media-outlets, draws our reluctant attention on our mobile phone devices, iPads and news stands, ignorantly fills our neighbourhood homes, locker room talks and coffee row gossip clubs. What have we done to our God in one another?

How can we ever reverse our collective human culpability in so much visible and invisible, subtle and blatant, local and global suffering and destruction? We don’t deserve forgiveness. When it comes to sin and evil, all of us are capable, all of us are guilty; we only differ in degree, if we differ at all.

Screaming Friday, horrible Friday, death-dealing Friday … Good Friday??!!
Of all days filled with this walk-with-Jesus
(no walk in the park, that’s for sure!)
this is the day for mass confession,
for taking collective responsibility,
especially in the western world,
for the ravages on creation and all living things,
for the exploitation and destruction
of beautiful human beings
in desperate need of shelter and safety,
food and clothing,
a future and a homeland, a promise and a hope.
Do we truly grasp the extent of our evil ways?

O God, we would have been better off
left to our own self-destruction.
You, O God, would be better off without us!
Crush us, grind us to powder, return us
to the dust of the earth where we belong.
Start all over again,
creating without any mistake this time,
which really means: don’t grant free will
to the loving creating work of your hands,
because that’s what caused all the trouble
in the first place.
Give yourself a chance, crazy God,
to re-create, to begin again,
and do it right this time …

Good Friday, Saving Friday, Redeeming Friday…
Why, foolish  and overly generous Lord,
why indeed, did you save us from ourselves?!

Because my tiny cherished earthling,
I love you, and you are precious in my eyes …
Because I desire your wholeness despite everything …
Because all is not lost, despite
what you see and hear, taste and feel.
Because you are so much more than what your 
conniving ways can scheme.

Because you cannot save yourselves,
I sent a helper to point you
in my saving, redeeming, merciful direction:
look to your Christ, my Jesus, my Son.
Why do you think he is my Son?
Look to that One who shows the way out of your
self-inflicted misery …
Look to the One who held on to LOVE, my LOVE,
amidst a death-dealing swirling tsunami
of HATE and EVIL,
and then see what power is unleashed
when you learn to do
just that …
Death itself dies, its power dismantled,
swallowed up forever
in LOVE …

I hide my face
in shame and undeserving joy …
Love won’t let me drown in the waters of death,
but washes me in waters of life,
a cocktail-potion of terrifying
Grace mixed with Mercy
prepared by a crazy Lover in love with me, with us,
a re-creating Lover who won’t take death for an answer
under any circumstance …

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy …
I for-give … you …
Mercy within Mercy within Mercy

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

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Praying for the World

It is not Paris we should pray for; it is the world.
It is a world in which Beirut, reeling from bombings
two days before Paris, is not covered in the press.
A world in which a bomb goes off at a funeral in Baghdad
and not one person’s status update says “Baghdad,”
because not one white person died in that fire.
Pray for the world that blames
a refugee crisis for a terrorist attack;
for a world that does not pause to differentiate
between the attacker and the person
running from the very same thing you are.
Pray for a world
where people walking across countries for months,
their only belongings upon their backs,
are told they have no place to go.
Say a prayer for Paris by all means,
but pray more,
for the world that does not have a prayer,
for those who no longer have a home to defend.
For a world that is falling apart in all corners,
and not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.
(by Karunaezara on Instagram)

The above words, cross-posted on a Facebook Page, reveal a reality much uglier and disconcerting than the loss of hundreds of lives in the Paris attacks. I felt convicted by these words, because my heart recognized them as true. I love Paris, I have personal memories in Paris, I lived in France several decades ago. And so yes, yesterday’s attacks shook me to the core because of these personal connections.

But Beirut and Baghdad are unknown places to me. And because they are unknown places, the people are unknown and do not inhabit my heart. While the loss of lives there through terrorist attacks is equally tragic, that news registered only in my head and not my heart. The same is true for other parts of the world most of which I have never set foot in. I confess the sin of callousness and uncaring.

Yet, my love for Jesus challenges me to desire a greater capacity to hold the pain of the world in my very bones. If I claim to pattern my life on the one who bore our sins (1 Pt. 2:24), then I need to learn to break free from my little self-centered box of a world and embrace the wider human family. But it’s hard, it’s so very hard, to constantly be open, wide open, to pain, to screams of despair, to roaring tsunamis of destruction and death. Not only to remain open to embrace such agony, but to embrace without collapsing under its weight and death-dealing blows. The spirit is so willing, but the flesh is so incredibly weak. I fail miserably every day to kiss the leper, to love the outcast, to forgive the offender.

Yet we are called to be the change we want to see in the world. And God does not give up on us as easily as we may. God knows the potential for good with which we are created. The spark of God in our DNA draws us to compassion and courage, to selfless giving and caring, to great loving and deep forgiving. Those are the things that make our humanity shine with a light that no darkness can overcome. It’s been done some 2,000+ years ago by an obscure carpenter in Nazareth.

That obscure, crazy carpenter from Nazareth dared to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. For the first time, someone —none other than God’s own Son—said: the buck stops here. No return punch. No more tit for tat, no more sacrifice, no more scape-goating. “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice,” says God in Hebrews.

Far from rolling over and playing dead, Jesus’ self-sacrifice extended far beyond fight or flight, far beyond the suicide bomber theology of a holy war. In the utterly non-violent, no-return-punch-walk to his own death, in this non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

It takes great power to say with your life, “I will carry your pain and insults.” And to say these words from an inner place of strength and goodness, not from a place of victimization and inadequacy. Try to do this in the aftermath of Paris, or the Middle East, or Afghanistan, or our own back alleys and homes where abuse and violence create a living hell.

To be sure, carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat and simply taking it! Carrying pain from a position of strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose we are – God’s beloved son/daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

Of course evil needs to be opposed – no question. But we need to be much more creative in our plan of attack. In Jesus God found the only way that effectively neutralizes the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” That was a brand-new answer, a revolutionary answer. This type of answer no longer contributed to the problem.

SuicideBomberThat carpenter showed how to grow to our fullest, deepest and most beautiful human stature, another way to say that he opened the door to heaven for us all. If all who profess his name take this seriously and put his example into action, we’d have a massive upheaval against terrorism, beginning with redistribution of riches and restoring dignity and right relations among all peoples.

Jesus’ way of staring down evil without becoming evil himself still looks ludicrous in the eyes of the world. Yet the alternative is much worse. Staring down evil with love and justice has been done successfully; it can be done again.

Look not on our sins but on the faith of your people, O God. Take away everything that sucks courage dry, break down every wall in callous hearts, remove prejudice–resentments–false stereotypes from rash judgments. Teach us your strong and open and generous loving, for the sake of the planet’s well-being and the future of our children’s children.

Update two days later:
I continue to feel helpless, fighting off despair in my own heart, despair for a world on the brink of utter destruction. All the above words seem trite, irrelevant in the face of global destabilization. The only consolation I find is in praying; I am immensely grateful to my friend Amanda who posted this link on her Facebook Page: A Prayer for Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. O God, save us from ourselves.

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Let Me See Again

Preached on October 25, 2015 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Mark 10:46–52. Keep in mind that these homilies are longer than usual, as they are preached in a non-Eucharistic service:

Well, who doesn’t know or like today’s Gospel story about Bartimaeus, son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar his job is to remind passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher. After all, we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social rule with his loud appeals. Heart-wrenching and profound: “Son of David have mercy on me!” We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself. In response Bart does two things which are totally uncharacteristic for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up. Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up. Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft. Beggars cower and cringe. The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder sometimes what cloaks and cows us… What is keeping us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our lack of trust or our politeness? Do we come to church Sunday after Sunday, cloaked and cowering, watching the liturgical parade go by, sitting through worship untouched, never once letting the prayers and the hymns, the readings and reflections, the love of Jesus, touch our hurt and sorrow, our losses and our wounds? Perhaps we cower and remain silent because we fear others would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus! He doesn’t think twice about throwing propriety to the wind. He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Remember the Gospel from last week. In last week’s Gospel text, which precedes today’s, the disciples came off looking rather smug. They thought they had this Jesus all figured out. But not so! While Jesus talks to them about bearing crosses, they argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom! If anyone is blind and deaf, they are. In both situations, Jesus asks the exact same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What do James and John answer? “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Do you hear the arrogance in those words? Do you “hear” the blindness in those words??? So here’s Bart today, and Jesus is not taking any chances; he doesn’t assume nothin’! After the arrogant answer of the disciples, it’s smart thinking to check what it is exactly that Bart wants.

But Bart, uncloaked and springing, unlike the disciples, our Bart wants the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants more than recognition, vain glory or prestige. He wants life!

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request? “My teacher, let me see AGAIN.” Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted. He had seen; he once knew colour, depth and shape. He once knew beauty and love and joy. He wanted it again. So do we, don’t we? And we too, no matter how awful life can be, have once known beauty and love and joy. And illness, physical—emotional—spiritual, can rob of us of all that.

And so Mark includes the sick a lot, and Jesus reaches out to the sick a lot. Because illness marginalizes us still today. When we suffer pain, physical or emotional, it keeps us from being able to participate fully in the life of the community. We can’t climb the steps as well as we used to, can’t drive after dark, can’t get out where we might infect others or be infected.When depression darkens our spirit, we don’t have the energy to invest in relationships or to see anything beautiful in life.

A few chapters earlier, Jesus healed the bleeding woman who touched the hem of his garment. Neither this poor woman nor our beggar Bart had friends to advocate for them. Both were pushed to the edges of society. Both take matters in their own hands. And both were commended by Jesus with the exact same words, “Your faith has made you well.”

The reaction of the crowd to Bart’s cries for help is interesting. First the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. Are they worried Jesus will be disturbed? Or are they using that as an excuse to quiet him because they are disturbed? Maybe they are disturbed by the reminder that there is pain in the world, they are disturbed by how close that pain has come to them—close enough to reach out and touch them, and they would just as soon not hear about it. They’d rather hear holy words from Jesus than the petitions of a sick man.

Let’s be honest; it’s darn uncomfortable when someone openly shares their need for help. It can be just as uncomfortable to walk past a beggar without reacting. I feel I did just about that a few days ago … and I feel ashamed about that, since I desire to be the face of Jesus in the world. A man walked into the community centre where I work, disheveled, asking for money and a place to stay. Instead of saying to him, take heart, sit down and have coffee, I immediately was on guard, not letting him touch my heart.  I just “tolerated” him while he made phone calls. I confess here this morning that I did not hear this man’s cries, and that I failed him and I failed Jesus.

Thank God Bartimaeus has better luck. He doesn’t keep his pain bottled up inside. He shouts, he cries out to Jesus. Far from avoiding emotional, hurting people, far from my own guarded heart only a few days ago, Jesus responded, called him over and faced the desperate hopes of a man in need.

I see in this Jesus story a human being in pain, who thankfully isn’t afraid to talk about it, and a community that initially is reluctant to hear his pain but eventually is willing to listen and to help. I pray in contrition that I may learn to do this next time.

Here’s a story about someone who was luckier than the man who I encountered a few days ago. Little or nothing in Annie’s life promised a rosy future. She was unschooled, hot tempered, nearly blind from untreated trachoma by age 7. Her mother died when Annie was 8. She and her little brother Jimmie were left with an abusive father and a dilapidated home. Two years later the father abandoned his children. Annie and her brother were sent to the orphanage for the poor.

Her little brother died a short time later. Annie was devastated; her life was lost before she had any, or so it seemed. Blind, poor, no one to help her see. But Annie cried out, just like Bartimaeus, for someone to take note of her. Lo and behold, a state official heard Annie’s plea and began securing some support for the rebellious and contrary teenager. After two unsuccessful eye operations, Annie was allowed to attend a school for the blind.

Her life changed dramatically. Annie quickly learnt to read and write. She also learned to use the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind. That particular skill opened the door to her future and a life of remarkable achievements. Anne eventually had several successful eye operations, which improved her sight significantly. She graduated as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Anne accepted an offer to tutor a girl of 7, a girl who was spoiled, rebellious, stubborn, blind, deaf, and mute. That girl was Helen Keller, who credited Anne for letting her “see again.” Someone heard Annie’s cry for help, and Anne in turn reached into Helen Keller’s blindness in order to help her see again. And the rest is history, as we say.

“My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus cried out. Whose cry for help do we need to heed? What if we learnt to throw off our cloaks of fear and embarrassment, and dared to talk about our pain? What if we learnt to make space for those who have trouble being heard, for those whose hardships have caused numbness and blindness of heart?

Today’s witness by Jesus summons us to this task. If we become like the disciples, telling folks to “shut up” we have no right to claim the name Christian. But if we become like the crowd, telling the hurting ones among us to “take heart” we may learn today’s lesson. Once we learn to listen and hear each other into loving speech, we will have begun to show one another the mercy and hope of Christ. Then we will exchange the arrogance and blindness of the disciples for the vision of God’s reign in Jesus where all blind beggars and bleeding women, all sinners and tax collectors, deaf and mute people have a place at God’s banquet of heaven. Our faith still has the power to heal us in this way.

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The Feminist Question

It was bound to come sooner or later. After my last post, where I speak heart-wrenchingly about Rome’s approach to the discussion of women, a friend queried in a private message: why are you hesitant to identify with the term feminist?

According to Webster’s dictionary, feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” I would add to that “as well as equal dignity and responsibilities.” Certainly, if the definition would end there, and if we all agree on what feminism is and is not, then no doubt I am a feminist, and a very committed one at that.

However, feminism didn’t invent the “equality for all” vision. I see the dictionary definition of feminism as integral to the witness and teaching of Jesus. If I am a feminist, it has found its inspiration and motivation in the person of Jesus long before I knew feminist theory and praxis. My feminism thus arises from my Christian discipleship and is guided by the same.

Now I already hear another question, a puzzlement, an objection. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that various institutional expressions have scandalously contradicted Jesus’ teaching and his vision for a discipleship of equals, thus betraying the very One God sent to save us from the blindness and patriarchal madness that caused such a deplorable track record in the first place!  Most likely the Church’s failure to fully live Jesus’ radical message of equality and inclusion has contributed to the need for the feminist movement.

What I find fascinating, though, is that this flagrant betrayal of God’s messenger has in no way negated the soul-power and guiding potential of Jesus himself. What amazes me is that the heart and soul of this compromised Body of Christ, the Church, still pulsates with the potent memory of God’s own revolutionary dream of love and mercy, justice and equality for all, a dream as relevant and as sorely needed in our suffering world as ever before. What amazes me is that this radical love and JesusFeminist4bmercy still have the power today to overthrow notions of superiority, of hierarchy, of status and religious arrogance, even in the hallowed halls of the ecclesial patriarchal edifice, keeping religious careerists off balance and the institution on edge. That is why I think Pope Francis is a God-send — just in time. That is why the Church in every time and place must continually re-examine itself in order to re-align its teachings and practice with the Gospel message — Ecclesia semper reformanda est. While still needing much conversion on women’s issues I nevertheless see Pope Francis working hard to restore the vibrant soul-power of Jesus and the radical compassion of the Christian message. So I’m willing to cut him some slack on the “woman-question.”

The sad part though is that because of the institutional compromising of Jesus’ message, many feminists have given up on Christianity as a possible ally in their quest, thus throwing out the Jesus-baby with the smelly church bathwater. While I regret yet fully understand this abandonment, it is the revolutionary witness of Jesus that keeps me in the Church. It is his wild energy that keeps feeding my hope and my active contribution in my small corner of the planet to bringing about God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy for all.

Having said all this, I still prefer to be known as a Christian “tout court” (as the French say) rather than a feminist. I salute the quest for women’s equality and dignity, condemning with feminism every form of violence and abuse against women.  I salute the feminist connections between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the planet. I thus recognize feminism as in sync with the Biblical witness to the equality, mutuality and dignity of “male and female” as well as the beauty and integrity of creation. But modern usage of the term feminism itself has acquired a lot of politically charged overtones, to the point that multiple definitions now seem to operate. Using the term today tends to communicate a package of ideological goals, some of which feel compromising to my Christian commitment. Included in these are abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family life, family planning (why feminists swallowed the artificial hormones so readily instead of insisting on attacking the “fertility problem” where it belongs — with men, fertile always and everywhere — beats me), euthanasia (not sure about this last one). While open to greater understanding, I tend to lean towards more traditional points of view, still uncertain which way is truly forward. Time and thoughtful discernment (almost impossible in heated political debates) will tell which direction for each of these thorny and complex questions points to greater flourishing of humanity and all of creation.Feminism1

Precisely because the term feminism encompasses many different things today, the designation can be used in both affirming and constructive ways as well as judgmental, dismissive and disparaging ways, depending which group of people employs and interprets it. Frequently I find myself understanding more than one side of contentious issues while I see advocates on either side of a political divide turning a blind eye to opposing viewpoints in order to bolster their own or, worse, vilify those who disagree. In our zeal to be right, one-sided and simplistic arguments, dishonesty and misrepresentation, even in sophisticated and inconspicuous forms, creep in all too easily. In the end, however, these cannot stand in the light of day, no matter which side of a complex reality we come down on, and can even risk discrediting our argumentation . When it comes to tactics and errors, zeal for a cause can in fact turn us into an unflattering mirror image of our opponent, thereby running the risk of discrediting our own argument. A good dose of charity, respect and humility would greatly benefit advocates on both sides of today’s complex realities.

I would see such temptations as a manifestation of “original sin,” that subtle yet so present “objective disorder” to which we are all prone, esp. when zeal for a noble cause takes hold of us and we dismiss the need for self-criticism and humility: “Feminism without spirituality runs the risk of becoming what it rejects: an elitist ideology, arrogant, superficial and separatist, closed to everything but itself. Without a spiritual base that obligates it beyond itself, calls it out of itself for the sake of others, a pedagogical feminism turned in on itself can become just one more intellectual ghetto that the world doesn’t notice and doesn’t need.” ~ Joan D. Chittister, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

My liberation as a woman is grounded in the Gospel call to fullness of life: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The witness and teaching of Jesus provides everything I need to guide my growth as a woman and to inspire me to do my little part in making the world a better place where it is easier for more people to be good, fulfilled and joyful; I see no need for additional labels. Meanwhile the door between my Christian spirituality and feminism is wide open, facilitating an ongoing process of critical reflection, evaluation and appropriation of the two. Most importantly in this process, however, is that my relationship with Jesus informs and sheds discerning light on my feminism, not the other way around. As a good feminist, I claim my experience and my voice as legitimate. As a good Christian, I seek the face of Christ in all women and men of good will, expecting the Holy Spirit to bring gifts through the “otherness” of all my sisters and brothers.

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For further reading:
An interesting article appeared recently over at America Magazine: Feminist Case Against Abortion
Related site:  Feminists For Life

Radical, Gospel-inspired simple living is still embodied today by many courageous Christians: l’Arche founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker founded by Dorothy Day, and the Simple Way lead by Shane Claiborne — also see Red Letter Christians.

“We must each make a decision for ourselves on what works for our own lives.  Many will choose to leave behind the pain and rejection endured as a result of simply being a woman in religion that is embedded with structures that do not value women’s voices.  And, many will choose to stay and wade through the ongoing misogynistic practices in search for the nooks and crannies where one can find solace.  Both are feminist choices and every action contributes toward the ultimate objective of eradicating sexism and all oppression wherever they exist – including religion.” Thus says Catholic Gina Messina-Dysert in her TED-Talk on Feminism and Religion.

“If you feel deeply enough, you stay; not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it. You’re struggling for the soul of something.” Thus says Elizabeth Johnson, one of my heroes in Catholic feminist discourse; several of her books grace my shelves. Here is a great article about her: Feminism in Faith

“Faith, religion, spirituality, cannot be subjected to sexist and misogynistic structures requiring women to renounce their freedom, their intelligence, their sexuality and capabilities to be part of them.” Words by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a medical doctor, theologian and Benedictine nun living at Montserrat, Spain, who has published a new book entitled The History of Feminist Theology. A short yet insightful interview with her can be found here.

Since I make reference to male fertility, I guess I should at least find a place where you can learn more about male contraceptive research —  click here.

There is a growing feminist movement in circles of Evangelical Christianity. Here is a recently launched initiative called The Junia Project with lots of solid reading in very accessible language.

Sarah Bessey wrote a great blog post on her integration of Christian discipleship and feminism.  Sarah’s words grace the image at the top of this blog post. She has also written a very engaging book with the title “Jesus Feminist.” Her words are a fitting ending to this challenging reflection:

Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. God’s Kingdom tastes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. My life should still bear the fruit of the Spirit out. ~ Sarah Bessey

If we want to live counter-culturally as disciples, we have to live our lives and seek mercy and do justice counter-culturally as well. It’s tempting to want to employ the same tactics and arguments or methods that have been used on us or others but that is a temptation we must resist.  I don’t believe that silencing and shaming and other tactics of the world will really bring about God’s redemptive movement for women. We are to be gentle as doves and cunning as serpents. ~ Sarah Bessey

God is light, there is no darkness in him, so when we participate in the life of Christ now, we are marked as the bringers of light. The Apostle John wrote, “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ~ Sarah Bessey

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Christmas 2014

NativitySceneTo be honest, Christmas Day is no time to be born, especially when you love Jesus as I do. Confession: love Jesus, 364 days, jealous of Jesus, one day. But my parents didn’t share this sentiment. I was their first-born of five and remained the only girl. Born and raised in the Netherlands, I was doted on,  the only one receiving presents on Christmas Day. I still cherish those days of warmth and love – their memories still give off fuzzies.

As a teenager I had a stubborn justice streak, though, some strange wild desire to do the unconventional in the name of Jesus, something that made my Sunday-observing Catholic parents very nervous, especially at Christmas time. Given that I was my parents’ firstborn child, on Christmas Day, this created a lot of pressure not to rock boats on Christmas Day because, besides Jesus’ birthday, it was my special day and by extension my parents’ special day as my arrival had ushered them into parenthood.

But my zeal for Jesus got the best of me, and one year I announced I would not be home for Christmas (my birthday), but would volunteer at the nearby nursing home to be with those who had no family. I was in for an odd experience: delightful surprise at one of my best Christmases ever combined with sour comments about “being rebellious” and spoiling the family fun.

This memory came back last year as, once again, my zeal for Jesus got the best of me. Together with husband and daughter I spent Christmas Day volunteering at the local community Christmas dinner with all who had no one to celebrate with. This time there were no sour comments or resentful looks; we all agreed it was the best way to honour Christ’s birth. I’m hooked now; the family gathering will have to take place on another day close to Christmas. Pope Francis takes every possible opportunity to point out the obvious: followers of Christ are to look, sound and behave counter-culturally, especially in what has become the peak buying and consuming season of the year. Jesus, born in a stable, came into the world to fight and defeat the demons of greed and selfishness, prejudice and hardness of heart. From the manger to the cross, Jesus fought these death-dealing trends in the human heart, thus opening the gates of heaven through radical compassion and mercy, love and self-giving for the “least of these.” Read more at: http://www.prairiemessenger.ca/14_12_17/litlife_14_12_17.html

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