Can We Do Better?

Be the person who breaks the cycle.
If you were judged, choose understanding.
If you were rejected, choose acceptance.
If you were shamed, choose compassion.
Be the person you needed when you were hurting,
not the person who hurt you.
Vow to be better than what broke you—
to heal instead of becoming bitter
so you can act from your heart, not your pain.
~ Lori Deschene

I began writing this reflection in Holy Week, a time of intense spiritual scrutiny as we accompanied Jesus in his final days. The above words from Lori Deschene echo poignantly Jesus’ summons to live into another way, to relate to one another in another way than the adversarial model of the world with winners and losers. “One of you will betray me,” Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:21—33). Only one betrayed Jesus? Yes, Judas did, but so did Peter, and all his other friends who ran for cover, more concerned about saving their own skin than reaching out to their Lord in his time of need. I’m afraid that all of us betray Jesus, all the time and in all places. I see it most painfully among well-meaning Christians, especially when we disagree on moral matters.

Anglicans in particular have a special duty to take Jesus’ summons seriously as we stake our unique contribution to Gospel discipleship on the quality of our relationships, our bonds of affection. Paul Avis articulates this well in his book The Vocation of Anglicanism: “Anglicanism seeks to hold together (often otherwise polarizing) truth together in theology and practice in order that it may hold people together. (It does this by claiming) to be catholic and reformed, episcopal and synodical, universal and local, biblical and reasonable, traditional and open to fresh insight.” (pg. 182)

In a month’s time we Canadian Anglicans are heading into a most challenging General Synod (GS2019) with the motion to change the definition of marriage up for a second reading and subsequent vote. For those cherishing a traditional understanding of marriage, Jesus’ summons to relate differently is betrayed when regarding supporters of same-sex marriage as apostates and heretics, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Supporters of same-sex marriage betray the same summons of our Lord when regarding opponents as enemies and homophobes, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Both sides dismiss the good faith in the other. Both dismiss the primacy of conscience in the other. Both relate from a place of judgment and fear, anger and pain instead of trust, acceptance and compassion. Then, in an uncanny look in the mirror, both become eerily alike in their worst behaviours.

Acceptance in Christ runs deeper and is qualitatively distinct from approval and agreement. Jesus brought a new way of belonging and relating to God and, by extension, to one another. That new way challenges us all to love radically in faithfulness to our God. This becomes particularly important in matters of deep disagreement. In his book A Letter to My Congregation, Ken Wilson writes:

The demands of acceptance require us to maintain a relationship of honour and respect with those with whom we may ardently disagree. We accept the fact that our convictions (…) differ, and those with whom we differ hold their convictions, as we do, unto the Lord. Inasmuch as this is not easy for us, we commit ourselves to bearing it as part of the disciple’s cross. We don’t agree to disagree by diminishing the importance of the question (…) We recognize that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive for integrity and unity. Violating one’s conscience, even when it is mistaken, can do harm to that integrity. (…) We must respect the measure of faith a person has received without attempting to persuade them to act against it. (…) We practice this form of acceptance by recognizing that each of us stands or falls, lives or dies, unto the Lord, trusting that the Lord is able to make even us wretched sinners stand. We ruthlessly practise the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we can. (pg. 114/115)

The question of same-sex marriage is a salient one in all Christian denominations. Even Roman Catholics are not off the hook, despite what Rome says. Not only is the conversation among thoughtful Catholics going on “under the table,” so to speak, but Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people are steadily migrating to more welcoming churches, most notably the United Church and Anglican ones. As the discussion on the subject in a recent ARC Canada meeting pointed out, we are very much in this painful conversation together. A unique illustration of this togetherness is the fact that ARC Canada was invited to contribute a submission to the Anglican Church of Canada’s Marriage Commission on the ecumenical implications of a changed definition of marriage between the two churches. This was likely a first; inviting an ecumenical partner to weigh in on an internal ecclesial discernment and decision-making process on a controversial subject is still rather unprecedented.

If our difficult conversations are truly Spirit-led, modelling a way not of this world, as Jesus summons us, all of us need to practice restraint, suspend suspicion and labeling, and refrain from holding others in contempt. Trusting one another, presuming good faith, embracing instead of excluding – all this might feel like too heavy a cross to bear for proponents of both sides of the question before us. It will feel like dying to ourselves. It will involve relinquishing the need to be right, resisting the temptation to use our pain as a weapon of mass relational destruction.

My heart goes out to those who feel caught in the ecclesial cross-fire on marriage. I share respect and compassion rather than judgment and scorn to all. What if it might be too soon in the cultural, religious and anthropological process of appropriating the Christian implications of same-sex attraction to come to definitive conclusions? Those whose lives are directly affected, who live in this in-between, liminal, space need a robust spirit of ruthless honesty and healthy humility, a healed inner constitution and a mature engagement drenched in faithful patience for the masses to catch up, esp. in our churches.

Can we vow to be better than what breaks us? Do we take seriously Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Can we muster the courage to appreciate that the Holy Spirit can draw us together in a powerful unity, despite very diverse perspectives and convictions? Only then do we offer a valid alternative to a world mired in polarization and controversy.

Pope Francis has said that, long before dogma and doctrine, truth is a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity. This is my heart’s desire as we move into GS2019. Please pray for us all.

“We must love them both:
those whose opinions we share
and those whose opinions we reject,
for both have laboured in search for truth,

and both have helped us in finding it.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

A shorter version of this reflection was published on page 6 of the June 2019 issue in the monthly newspaper The Saskatchewan Anglican.

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Truth – A Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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