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. …

Applying the above to a current crisis:
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. What is truth in this painful crucible? Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? Some striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, 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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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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The Gift of Authority?

The harder question is certainly how do these documents and this ongoing conversation filter down to the grassroots level… These documents will only exist in the theological-geek world unless we can find ways to put them into practice in working together.” These words were spoken last April by Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls.

I agree with her; it’s high time that great ecumenical agreements and statements get more attention from the folks in the pews. So for starters, here are some of my musings on an important ecumenical document entitled: The Gift of Authority – Authority in the Church III © 1998 Anglican – Roman Catholic International Dialogue)

While this document was published some 18 years ago, it is sadly still little known by ordinary Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Sad really, for it is a prime example of good ecumenism in practise. The agreement takes a comprehensive look at the exercise of authority in the Christian tradition in a spirit of humility and honesty, openness and courage. Given the current challenges authority structures experience in both the Anglican Communion and in the Roman Catholic Church, it would behoove all of us to receive its content and to apply its insights sooner rather than later. The document confirms what I have been thinking and learning for a quite some time now, i.e. that the Roman Catholic way of exercising authority has been too centralized and hierarchical, and that the Anglican way of exercising authority within a synodal structure can be perceived as too nebulous and overly tentative. The former risks being experienced as increasingly disconnected from the lives of the lay faithful and the latter as too wishy-washy and lacking teeth. It seems to me that what the one tradition has too much of, the other tradition needs more of and vice versa.

The first section of the document is a beautiful sweeping look at the theological and spiritual underpinnings of authority in the Christian tradition throughout history. This is, in a way, the articulation of the Christian vision of how authority is supposed to work – where it originates, how it is refined and informed, and how it needs to be exercised:

In Jesus Christ … the “Yes” of God to humanity and the “Amen” of humanity to God become a concrete human reality. This theme of God’s “Yes” and humanity’s “Amen”     in Jesus Christ is the key to the exposition of authority in this statement. (par. 8)

When a believer says “Amen” to Christ individually, a further dimension is always involved; an “Amen” to the faith of the Christian community. … The believer’s “Amen” is so fundamental that individual Christians through their life are called to say “Amen” to all that the whole company of Christians receives and teaches as the authentic meaning of the Gospel and the way to follow Christ. (par. 12)

The interplay of God’s “Yes” and the believers’ “Amen” continues in the document’s exploration of the roles of Tradition and Scripture in the formulation and exercise of authority before it moves on to the importance of Reception and Re-Reception from one generation to the next in all time and place (par. 24—31). All this sounds as if Anglicans and Catholics are of one mind on the understanding and exercise of authority in the Church until par. 31 clearly acknowledges the challenges:

Anglicans and Roman Catholics can agree in principle on all of the above, but need to make a deliberate effort to retrieve this shared understanding. When Christian communities are in real but imperfect communion they are called to recognise in each other elements of the apostolic Tradition which they may have rejected, forgotten or not yet fully understood. Consequently, they have to receive or re-appropriate these elements, and reconsider the ways in which they have separately interpreted the Scriptures. (par. 31)

From here on the document lays out quite explicitly what the challenges are in each tradition  in order to recover the elements which have previously been “rejected, forgotten or not fully understood.

The Roman Catholic Church is challenged to examine its commitment to lay participation in  decision-making and governance structures of the Church. While the document concedes that “the tradition of synodality has not ceased” in the RC Church, as a lifelong Roman Catholic I know full well that this gracious assessment has not been embraced as fully as it deserves. While the vision of the Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council certainly included a revitalization of the synodal processes in the Church, effective implementation of that vision was seriously halted for nearly half a century, even at the level of Bishops’ Synods.

It is only now with Pope Francis that some concrete efforts are being made, illustrated by Rome’s initiative to send questionnaires to all dioceses prior to the Synod on the Family to invite the thoughts and questions of lay Catholics through their local bishops. The fact that efforts at collecting real-life data from the lives of real people, and the fact that bishops were urged to listen deeply to their people and then to speak from their hearts on these matters, resulted in what some have called chaotic and messy debates at the two Synods on the Family — surprise! The lid has been held on tight for too long on concrete and controversial issues and new questions. The synodal model still has lots of dust to get cleaned off, collected from centuries of neglect in Rome. As Roman Catholics are waking up to the messy character of synodality, Anglicans must be smiling – recognizing something all too familiar in their own synodal deliberations. When it comes to restoring the synodal principle in exercising authority, Rome has much to learn from Canterbury.

However, Anglicans do not have the golden formula either: Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion (par. 56), thereby risking to diminish the very meaning of communion. While the Anglican concern for the quality of relationships of love and respect trump rigid adherence to rules, and while the Anglican concern for historical contextuality, dispersed authority, synodal consultation at all levels and proceeding through careful discernment and reception of new ideas are all laudable attributes of the Anglican approach to authority, they come with subtle yet real traps revealing its fragility. No issue has brought this weakness to the fore more, and no question has tested this model more, than the current debate on same-sex marriage. (A next blog post will address this debate in greater detail — stay tuned) Some Anglicans now look longingly across the Tiber for more centralized authority, while some Roman Catholics look longingly to the Anglican model of relational and moral persuasion and consensus.

The current situation is a telling one, highlighting how much both traditions need one another:

In the Anglican Communion there is a reaching towards universal structures which promote koinonia, and in the Roman Catholic Church a strengthening of local and intermediate structures.
The Commission poses some questions frankly but in the conviction that we need the support of one another in responding to them. We believe that in the dynamic and fluid situation in which they are posed, seeking to answer them must go together with developing further steps towards a shared exercise of authority. (par. 55)

There are other challenges contained in the ARCIC Document on Authority, challenges and critical questions issued to both traditions. Much is expected from bishops in each tradition to help realize the potential for further growing in unity:

For the sake of koinonia and a united Christian witness to the world, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops should find ways of cooperating and developing relationships of mutual accountability in their exercise of oversight. At this new stage we have not only to do together whatever we can, but also to be together all that our existing koinonia allows. (par. 58)

When I first read this document a number of years ago I read it as a Roman Catholic, and now I have re-read it as a new and developing Anglican. I am still as heartened and inspired by it as before – I’d like to think of this as a testimony to the document’s integrity. Currently the Anglican model of authority is being severely tested, painful as that it, and it is on full display for the world to see. The latest installments of this display are the Primates Meeting in Canterbury last January, the published statement from the ACC House of Bishops this past February, and soon the General Synod in July. But when the second largest denomination in the country is disaffected Catholics and when the process of reception by the faithful fails massively on important matters, Rome’s authority is by no means exempt from being tested, albeit in different ways.

I recently finished reading a book by Jeffrey W. Driver, the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, entitled A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and Grief of Anglicanism (2014, Wipf & Stock). It contains the following text on its back cover:

The injunction of Jesus, “it is not so among you,” challenged his followers to use power and live in community in a way that contrasted with what occurred “among the Gentiles” (Mark 10:41-45). This is why the sometimes tedious debates about authority and structure in the Anglican Communion could actually matter—because they might have something to say about being human in community, about sharing power and coexisting, about living interdependently on a tiny and increasingly stressed planet. The Anglican experiment in dispersed authority, for all its grief, could be a powerful gift.

It has been 18 years since “The Gift of Authority” was published. Have our churches acted on its recommendations? Have our churches taken its suggestions and questions seriously? Maybe. Eighteen years is nothing in a tradition that thinks and breathes in centuries. The people in the pews still know regrettably little about any ecumenical agreements, a tragic fact. Both the Roman top-down model and the Anglican bottom-up model are going through their respective refiner’s fires at this time. I pray that “The Gift of Authority” can be a tiny guiding light in the current dilemmas. I can hardly wait for the day that both our traditions’ approaches to authority get remarried into a coherent whole, deserving of Jesus’ words as quoted above: It is not so among you. (Mark 10:41-45)

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Thou Shalt Not … What?!

You know when somebody just punctured a hole in your conceptual world when his/her comment ruffles the well-manicured feathers of your pride. Well, that happened to me the other day when a friend sneered that we Christians play fast and loose with what is considered a sin. Nooo, said that stubborn know-it-all little voice inside my head, how dare we do that?

Next, I heard a priest comment on the sophisticated ability of Christians to sanctify evil when it suits them, and he offered the following illustration: “In all my 40 years as a priest, I have never had anyone confess a sin against the tenth commandment. Why am I not surprised? Because we have built an entire economic system on that sin.” Rats, there it was again, another feather-ruffling; my pride started to look pretty shabby.

So I began to reflect more deeply: what is that tenth commandment in Exodus 20:1–17? The first five commandments point to what we must do, followed by commandments forbidding certain acts — you shall not kill, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness etc. So far so good. Finally, the tenth and last one, forbids certain desires: You shall not covet (i.e., desire) the house of your neighbour. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbour, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.

On first reading, this last commandment seems to be out of place. How can innocent desires be placed next to prohibitions against murder? And yet there it is, even described in great detail, included in a list of dangerous crimes.  To understand the reason why this commandment is included in the first place, I only need to turn to the French philosopher Rene Girard who died last year at age 91.

In fact, Girard’s insight lead him to believe that the tenth commandment is in fact the most important of all, for it cuts to the root cause of all violence in the world. It is human nature to covet, to desire what our neighbour has. And because we desire what our neighbour has and desires, we resort to stealing and killing, oppressing and exploiting, lying and bearing false witness.

The modern western materialistic economy is solidly grounded in insatiable human desires, desires which literally and figuratively make us kill and steal. The Panama Papers reveal the extend of the sin of greed, and the length of deceit individuals travel to rob entire nations of much needed tax income to provide for all people. While these papers are only the most recent example of deceit, each of us is guilty of the same sin somewhere on the continuum of desire and greed. It is thus that we have sanctified the evil in the sin of desire. Desires and coveting make the economy turn and thrive.

Then along comes Pope Francis; his words cut into that abomination, and once again the feathers of human pride ruffle uncomfortably, right into the halls of worldly power and prestige. Francis doesn’t miss a chance to point out that our affluent lifestyles are sinful to the core; they rob the poor of the right to care for their families and they rob the poor of plain human dignity and respect. In a passionate speech in Bolivia (July 2015) he minced no words: “Unbridled capitalism is the ‘dung of the devil.”

“The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone,” Pope Francis said in one of his homilies. “We ought to set the table for all and ask that there be a table for all.” Citing Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes the line, “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” the pope said, “we must do what we can so that everyone has something to eat. But we must also remind the powerful of the earth that God will call them to judgment one day, and it will be seen if they truly tried to provide food for him in every person, and if they worked so that the environment would not be destroyed, but could produce this food.”

As the CBC article paying tribute to Rene Girard states, peace is the perennial hope of humanity. It is promised in the Bible, where God “extends peace … like a river.” It was promised by the Enlightenment, which had grown tired of religion and thought that reason and mild trade, would soothe our war-like passions. And it was promised again in our time with the promotion of “globalization” as the road to peace through prosperity. But violence is still with us.

Jesus is innocent, the Gospels insist, and his innocence proclaims the innocence of all scapegoat victims. He reveals the founding violence, hidden from the beginning, because it preserved social peace. A choice is posed: humanity will have peace if it follows the way of life that Jesus preached. If not, it will have worse violence because the old remedy will no longer work once exposed to the light.

Oh my goodness, it is true: we do play fast and loose with what we consider sin. My feathers of pride are messed up by the reality check of God’s judgment and my heart’s contrition. Lord, have mercy…

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Fasting and Feasting again

I love being Catholic. And for the most part I have not given up being Catholic in this time of preparing for my formal reception into the Anglican Church at Easter. In fact, I am surprised to learn how Catholic the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship can be. While there are certainly differences in emphasis and perspective, in governance and authority (otherwise we would not still be divided), the bonds of affection between Rome and Canterbury are indeed strong and deep (and they are growing stronger by the day — see today’s story in  The Tablet), especially in times of challenge and tension in either tradition. Just ask Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier, a life-long Catholic and founder of the international movement of l’Arche communities, was a special guest at the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Canterbury last month. “The big thing is to trust oneself,” Vanier said when addressing those who were praying for the Primates’ meeting. “It’s about listening to the inner voice. Listening to something that’s inside each one of us, which is a compass to make us more human, and more in tune with things of God.”

“The Vatican Council says the dignity of the human being is the personal conscience, which is that secret sanctuary where God speaks with each of us, indicating what is just and true and helping us move away from the opposite.”

“We are in a world where people are not encouraged to listen to the inner voice – what do you think, what do you believe? – we are in a world where people are not encouraged to believe in themselves.” He added: “You are more precious than you dare believe.”

Reflecting on his decades-long experience of living in community with people with disabilities and without, Vanier said communities are “nourishing” because they involve living with people who are very different from ourselves. He said it is good to be surrounded by those who clash with us, because it helps us find “the place of nourishment” and “to discover little by little who am I.” (Vanier, Jan. 15, 2016)

Lent begins today. The traditional summons in these 40 days ahead calls us to step back and examine our lives, to reconnect with our inner voice in that secret sanctuary where God speaks intimately with us. Can we step back from all that dehumanizes us and others in order to step towards all that humanizes and brings wholeness to our world?

Trust Pope Francis to set us in the right spirit. If we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Pope Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others: “Indifference to our neighbour and to God represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”

Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Pope Francis says that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” (Ten Inspirational Lenten Lessons from Pope Francis, or Pope Francis’ Ten Tips for Lent)

lent-prayer-fasting-giving

As last year I would like to pair my fasting practices with feasting ones. Each year Lent invites us to discover that any depriving becomes richer when paired with a certain type of feasting. The first time I came across this coupling was when I read this Lenten Litany of Fasting and Feasting by William Arthur Ward. So below is this year’s version of my resolve in fasting and feasting. Once again I share it here as a way to encourage myself to truly live this fasting and feasting in the next 40 days leading up to Easter:

Fasting from worldly ambition,
while feasting on God’s faithfulness;
Fasting from indifference and callousness,
while feasting on trust and the blessing of diversity;
Fasting from shallow pleasures,
while feasting on spiritual riches;
Fasting from mundane distractions,
while feasting on meaning, depth and purpose;
Fasting from resentment and irritation,
while feasting on love and mercy;
Fasting from fear and distrust,
while feasting on generosity and hospitality;
Fasting from closed-mindedness,
while feasting on surrender and ongoing conversion;
Fasting from hardness of heart,
while feasting on generosity and joy;
Fasting from rigidity and rash judgment,
while feasting on affection and solidarity;
In my fasting and feasting, may God be praised …

How do you live the three Lenten invitations of fasting, praying and giving? Or if you do not observe Lent, how do you build into your lives seasons or disciplines of stepping back in order to re-align, re-calibrate and re-orient?

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I Wonder as I Wander

This past spring, in a meeting with the Anglican — Roman Catholic International Commission, Pope Francis pointed out that working toward the restoration of full unity between Christian traditions is not optional but is an urgent summons of Christ himself. This was not the first time Pope Francis made such comments. In the nearly three years of his pontificate the Holy Father has taken every possible opportunity to stress this summons.

I am immensely grateful for his words. My many years of ecumenical ministry have given me numerous friends in a wide variety of Christian traditions. But more importantly, these involvements and precious relationships have greatly expanded my understanding of church. I have come to realize that it is only together that we reflect the fullness of the Gospel message. It is only together that we can credibly proclaim Christ’s saving love and mercy in an increasingly skeptical world. In fact, the task of unity among churches is a question of sheer survival in some parts of the world — see this article. We become a stronger witness when we learn to bind as one the various aspects of the witness of Jesus perfected in our respective denominations. Cardinal Emeritus Walter Kasper referred to this notion in a recent article as follows:

There is no ecclesiological vacuum outside the Catholic Church. Since Jesus Christ also works in and through the other Churches – and these often give clearer expression to individual elements of being church than the Catholic Church – the complete realization of Catholicity is only possible in ecumenical exchange and reciprocal enrichment. Catholic and ecumenical are therefore not opposites but two sides of the same coin. (Mercy is the medicine to heal the wounds of the ChurchCardinal Walter Kasper   – The Tablet, November 12, 2015)

Back in 1952, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Lund, Sweden. As the churches were searching together for the means of common witness, they asked each other earnestly whether they were doing all they could to manifest the oneness of the people of God: “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” The answer to this urgent question has become known as the Lund Principle. This means that Christians and churches should try to act  as much as possible ecumenically, in particular, to bear witness together to a common life in Christ.

Ecumenical involvement, therefore, is by no means limited to experts and scholars. In fact, much of the real ecumenical work occurs among ordinary people in the pews – the rubber-hitting-the-road type of stuff. Last year I was part of a Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue process. Seven Lutherans and seven Catholics (chosen from the pews) met on a regular basis to read and discuss together the new document entitled From Conflict to Communion, a text written by an international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue group in preparation for the year 2017, the year which marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The text bears witness to the good news that we are finally living in a season of reconciliation between our churches, a reconciliation which allows us now to tell the story of the  500 year old break-up together. Given the length of this separation and the centuries of mutual disregard, each tradition developed in isolation from and in contrast to the other. Fortunately, the time of such mutual distrust and condemnation is behind us and the time of recognizing our common faith in Jesus has been ushered in.

Thus was created From Conflict to Communion – the title aptly captures the reconciling movement and growing convergence  between churches. Our group participants would prepare  assigned reading at home; then we would gather to discuss and learn together by bringing questions and insights, as well as joys and sorrows about being Lutheran and being Catholic. The experience was electric; friendships were born, understanding grew through conversations which made dry words leap off their pages and take on flesh in real people’s lives.

This past spring another ecumenical milestone was reached in Saskatoon with the creation of a Common Statement of Faith. This text is the fruit of local dialogue meetings which took place over three years between 10 representatives from Evangelical Churches and 10 members of the Roman Catholic Church, both clergy and laity. Formal dialogues between mainline Christians and Evangelical Christians are not as old as some of the other dialogues, but they are a fresh expression of increasing numbers of Christian sisters and brothers desiring to come together in order to encounter Jesus Christ in one another’s faithful worship and witness.

And lo, as I am walking the “road to Canterbury” another delightful gift has recently been prepared for the people of God in the pews, this time from the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada. A unique series of short videos featuring Anglican and Catholic presenters offer “small answers to big questions.” The series is entitled Did you Ever Wonder? and can be found here. Each 8-minute presentation is followed by a few discussion questions at the end of the video. The series is an ideal recipe for a delightful encounter with fellow Christians. I wonder as I wander … is it thanks to my expanded experience and understanding of church that my current transition to the Anglican Church does not feel like a “leaving”?

Some seasoned professional ecumenists have called this era a winter of sorts in ecumenical relations. But this brief sampling of recently produced resources, themselves the fruit of faithful discipleship in Christ, indicates anything but a winter. Clearly even in winter we walk together, and never more so than among ordinary people in the pews. So if you have been wondering about “those Christians in other churches,” be bold. Go knock on their door, attend their worship or invite them to yours. Then suggest that you meet for shared prayer and learning; delve into From Conflict to Communion (if nothing else, at least study the Five Ecumenical Imperatives in its last chapter), propose a joint prayerful study of the Common Statement of Faith, or enjoy some of the lovely online videos produced by the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue. Other Christians belong inside our comfort zone instead of outside of it, even if their Gospel expressions challenge us. There is no more excuse not to know each other, no more excuse not to befriend each other. There is no more lack of resources and study materials, no more excuse not to see Christ in one another. Pope Francis himself says so: it is an urgent summons of Jesus Christ whom we all profess as Lord and Saviour.

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The Outside Story

Note to Readers: This is the fourth post inspired by my current experience of denominational transition. Other entries can be found under:

A Time of Transition
Transition Continued
Transition: The Inside Story

God is not afraid of new things!
That is why he is continually surprising us,
opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.
He renews us: he constantly makes us “new.”
A Christian who lives the Gospel
is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world.
How much God loves this “newness!”

(Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)

Just like those who shook their heads at the biblical Ruth as she made her uncommon choices, members of the abandoned faith community may well shake their heads also. Except for some personal confidantes, very few people may be aware initially of the deep intra-psychic process which can take place in the person contemplating a denominational move. There is a time delay between the shifting of tectonic plates at the bottom of the ocean and the waves appearing on the surface of the water. By the time external signs of the move become apparent, an extensive inner process of letting go and redefinition has already been well underway in the person making the move. Reactions of surprise and shock in those left behind are not uncommon.

Those who have no personal experience of a crisis of meaning, and who have always been comfortable in their denominational affiliation, may find it nigh impossible to understand another’s need to make a denominational switch. Disbelief, judgment, denial and rejection may be heaped upon the one breaking denominational ranks.  These feelings will be particularly strong if the self-understanding of the abandoned denomination encourages convictions of denominational superiority, exclusive and absolute in faith and doctrine.

Then there are the people who show support and understanding because they live their own struggles of faith vicariously through the departing person. Connected to this group are those who feel threatened in their own belonging by the departing person. They may have doubted their own denominational affiliations, but have been afraid or are simply incapable of contemplating being anywhere else. A friend who left the Roman Catholic Church once told me of a person whom she had considered a friend who reduced contact to a minimum once she discovered my friend was considering changing denominations. Asking her the reason why, this woman had replied, “Your denominational exploration is too close for comfort; you are raising all the questions which I am trying hard to keep at bay so I can stay. I get very nervous every time I talk to you.”

Finally, there will be those – and God-willing they will be numerous – who will genuinely understand, respect and support the departing person’s decision to transfer denominational homes. These are the women and men who most likely are well-grounded and secure in their faith and denominational identity, who may have experienced similar transitions, and whose heart can appreciate a diversity of expressions with joy and peace. Some of these individuals may even show up on the Sunday of formal reception into the new denominational home to celebrate this significant passage. Such individuals become a vital source of affirmation and support, embodying the continuity between one’s past-present-future. For the past is not gone and life has only changed, not ended. If the denominational transfer can be done in a healthy fashion, and can be expressed in meaningful ritual with elements from both faith traditions, the past goes with us into the future as a valuable resource and a treasured legacy.

Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s House there are many rooms.” (John 14:2) Denominational transition is a move from one room in the Father’s house to another. It does not mean leaving God’s house! If this remains hard to grasp, then I wonder if all our ecumenical dialogues and agreements of the past 50 years has been for naught. My transition is not caused by a weakening of faith, but rather its opposite: my transition is driven by a deepening and an expanding of faith.

I decided to make my transition public in the wild hope that it could serve the greater good of the church catholic. My commitment to ecumenism and Christian Unity will go with me and will continue to find creative expression. It is, as I see it, part of our call as Christians to heal and restore our churches into one Body. I hope and pray that we will continue to grow together to see our unity in God through Jesus Christ before stumbling over our divisions: Look not on our sins but on the faith of your people, O God. Let us never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. Each in our own way, we are all seeking the radiant peace of God’s face.

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said,
“for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly;
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

(1 Cor. 13:11)

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A Time of Transition

You did not choose me but I chose you
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
 fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.
(John 15:16-17)

Many years ago I attended the beautiful celebration of a woman religious taking her final vows.  In his homily the presiding Bishop spoke about the many twists and turns our life path can take; yet God will not rest until we have reached the place prepared for us. Well, God has taken me on quite a journey in life, especially the journey of ecclesial ministry in the past 22+ years.

At various times in those same years I was compelled to step back and take stock, in order to listen intently to the promptings of the Holy Spirit both within my own heart and in the faith community as per my perceived sense of priestly vocation, a vocation not recognized by our beloved Roman Catholic Church. While I have never felt the urge to turn this experience of priestly call into a political cause, I have  been acutely aware of the controversial nature of such a claim. For this reason I have continuously strived to engage discernment with the utmost discretion and integrity, seeking direction through Scripture-based prayer and study, through mentoring conversations with wise and trusted individuals, Roman Catholic and otherwise, ordained and lay, as well as feedback from those on the receiving end of my ministry activities.

I have taken seriously the requirement to make important decisions with an informed conscience, and, I would add, “in community.” While such discernment is deeply personal, it is by no means private. As a baptized member of the Body of Christ, the Church, and as a recognized leader, teacher and mentor in that church, I live and exercise ministry in interdependence and accountability to all the members of Christ’s community of believers. It is my commitment to integrity and accountability that prompts this letter.

Acknowledging a call to priesthood is not an easy matter for a Catholic woman, as the Roman Catholic Church does not deem itself authorized by Christ to ordain women to the priesthood. I have had to face serious obstacles both outside and inside myself. Maybe the fact that I am soon turning sixty is giving a new urgency to the desire to respond more fully to God’s promptings, promptings that have been there for many years and persistently keep circling back into the affective, spiritual and ministerial orbits of my life. The promptings have defied my own resistance, ecclesial boundaries and current church teachings, even while they have been recognized and affirmed by many in the faith community. They have taken me into the sweetest, most intense and most beautiful spiritual and ministerial experiences, as well into the most challenging, most painful and most demanding intimacy with God. The promptings have tenaciously survived my own objections as well as the Church’s dismissal of the same. There is an authenticating power in having lived with this call for more than two decades. I have finally come to realize that this is so because inner promptings of this nature most likely have their origin in God’s dream, a dream that promises fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

In order to facilitate my response to God I have recently begun the process of becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, where I will soon begin a formal discernment on priestly ordination. Already I am being warmly welcomed in this new ecclesial home, a home which, while possessing a distinct and unique ethos, considers itself an integral part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, Christ’s body on earth.

This decision was not taken lightly, however, nor is it motivated by a desire to attack or criticize the Roman Catholic Church. “Mother Church” will always be the womb in which both my faith and my priestly calling were nurtured and grew in maturity and depth. As Pope Francis says in his Encyclical The Joy of the Gospel in the section on Ecumenism: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (par. 244)

Even though I am motivated by the desire to choose life there is nevertheless profound grief. Christ may not be divided but the institutional reality of his Church is. While ecumenical dialogue has reaped genuine fruits of profound respect, understanding and affection among the various ecclesial expressions of the Christian faith, my transfer to the Anglican tradition is nevertheless not formally approved by the Catholic hierarchy. Even though such a rejection causes great pain, in Christ’s own resurrection we see that deep suffering does not stop God from infusing our lives with redeeming power, grace and mercy. On this promise I stake my future.

I’m quite aware that not everyone will receive this news in a positive light. I can appreciate this; at times I too struggle to understand and accept choices others make. Allow me to offer a few thoughts in response to such a struggle. First I turn again to Pope Francis’ words in The Joy of the Gospel: “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another. It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us. … Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.” (par. 246)

Secondly, I suggest turning to some of the Roman Catholic documents on ecumenism, esp. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One) as well as some of the major agreements from the Anglican—Roman Catholic Dialogues of the past 40 years. These agreements show clearly our shared theology on the Eucharist, substantial mutual recognition of one another’s gifts and the acknowledgement of the action of God’s grace and mercy in both our traditions. Even if my decision stirs disagreement and struggle, can we nevertheless join in increased prayer for the unity of Christians?

While this may be difficult to comprehend, I do not feel I am “leaving.” On the contrary, I take the gifts and graces of my Catholic faith with me, desiring deeply to enrich my new ecclesial home with them. For I wish nothing more than that my personal ecclesial and ministerial journey may serve the quest for Christian Unity in the Body of Christ, a unity so fervently prayed for by Jesus on the final night of his earthly life.

I sincerely wish to thank all who have entrusted various ministries to me over the past 22+ years, in particular the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the people, staff and clergy, together with its past and current Bishops, of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina. You have never ceased to affirm the gifts and talents God has given me. Thank you for your trust, encouragement and friendship. With gratitude and affection I take you all with me in my prayers, my heart and my future ministry.

For I am confident in this very thing,
that the one who has begun a good work in you,
will bring it to completion
until the day of Christ Jesus.
Phil. 1:6

(While I share the above freely and publicly,  I have felt strongly about living my experience of priestly call in non-political ways in the church, and I continue to feel this way. Let us grace one another’s paths with mutual respect and affection. Rest assured that my participation in the Catholic conversation on the ordination of women is not ending, merely changing. United in prayer God’s will be done.)

For follow-up reflections pertaining to my experience of this denominational transition, see the subsequent blog entries:

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this to the very end. I ask for your prayers as I move through this time of transition. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Mincing no Words

Amazing how the Scriptures in these September Sundays speak bluntly into today’s massive refugee crisis, making all comfortable pews suddenly grow painful prickles — the prickles of God’s judgement on us for our inaction and complacency. Here below are a few thoughts on James 2:14–18 & Mark 8:27–35, the Scriptures for this coming Sunday September 13, 2015. I preached these words several years ago, and they are still as relevant today as they were then:

“Here we sit, week after week, singing, ‘Weave, weave, weave the sunshine out of the falling rain,’ or ‘Day by day, day by day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray.’ Each Sunday we walk out of here feeling soooo good, soooo holy, and you know what that adds up to? That adds up to nothing! Nothing, zero, nothing! There’s a poor lady rotting up on Seventh Avenue a couple blocks from our little comfort zone. ‘Oh, Jesus, sweet Jesus, meek and mild.’ Crap, total crap! We’re going to hug and kiss at the sign of peace, and who’s going to climb those stairs to hug and kiss that woman with shit running down her legs?!” (p. 83/84) In Due Season – A Catholic Life, by Paul Wilkes, Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Mark’s Gospel and James’ letter are known for their brevity and bluntness, much like this excerpt from a homily Paul Wilkes heard during a folk mass in the 1970’s in downtown Brooklyn, NY. In fact, those blunt sermon words capture well what we need to take home from the Scripture readings this day.

Faith without works is dead, says James. “Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus his disciples in Mark’s Gospel. “Who do you say that I am? You … Who exactly am I to you?”” asks Jesus, looking right into each and every heart that professes him as Lord.

Peter, this impulsive, hot-headed first pope, is quick to answer: “You are the Christ.” Well done, Peter. But then, in the blink of an eye, that rock called Peter turned into a stumbling block in the service of Satan. How can the rock of Christ change into a major obstacle at such lightning speed?

Peter is impulsive; the Gospels all agree on that. He’s on fire for God quickly and will do anything for his Lord. With great sincerity and enthusiasm Peter declared that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. But when Jesus alludes to the least bit of pain on the road ahead, Peter backs away, as if stung. He wants nothing to hurt his Lord, or himself. When Jesus talks of God’s reign, Peter hears earthly victory, political and painless triumph. A Messiah who speaks of suffering and being killed doesn’t compute in Peter’s mind. After Jesus is arrested, and it becomes risky to be associated with this carpenter, Peter covers his tracks and suits himself. He denies that he even knows this man, the very one whom he proclaimed as Messiah.

Two-faced? Yep, just like the rest of us.

Exactly who is this man Jesus anyways? The disciples wondered, the ordinary folk wondered, and the authorities wondered, with some feeling quite on edge: just who in the world is this?? We love Jesus when our prayers are answered. We love Jesus, meek and mild, as we experience his comfort and mercy in times of need. We love Jesus, sweet Jesus, because he gave his life for us – so we don’t have to lose ours. When Peter heard Jesus’ harsh words in Mark’s Gospel today – undergoing great suffering and be rejected – he simply couldn’t grasp that. Jesus the Christ, yes, but no pain. So Peter rebuked Jesus.

But this two-faced first pope gets rebuked in turn by none other than his Lord. Because what Peter suggests – life without pain, salvation without suffering – is in fact for Jesus a real temptation to avoid human pain and suffering, to avoid the humiliation of the cross.

And Jesus rejects it forcefully. And Mark says that Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, because what he is telling them next is not just for saints and priests and preachers, but for everyone. Choosing to shoulder the cross and deny one’s self, says Jesus, is the vocation of anyone claiming to believe in and follow him. For how can you have faith without works, without its concrete expression? A couple of examples may help:

Emilie had every reason to be angry with the world, to lock herself up in misery, and to bury herself in material comforts. Her mother had died when Emilie was still a child, and she was raised by an aunt. Emilie eventually married and had three sons. Finally, she got to enjoy the family she felt she never had. But over the course of a few years, Emilie lost husband and all three sons to disease.

One by one, the most treasured people in her life were taken from her by untimely, tragic deaths. Her sorrow was immense. Had Emilie lashed out in bitter rebellion, had she curled up in a ball in a dark closet, never to come out, or had she committed suicide, we would have all understood. It would have been very easy for Emilie to be outraged at the injustice of it all, and to turn away from a God who had seemingly abandoned her.

Yet, Emilie’s heart did not shut down and close up with pain. Those who lose their life will find it. As if stoked by the fire of her own intense suffering – like a burning bush in her soul – Emilie’s well of compassion and love just grew and grew. It was the early 1800’s in Montreal: the needs of the people were huge.

Emilie befriended a mentally ill woman, and had her move into her affluent home. Then she cared for those left orphaned by the cholera epidemic in 1832. She cared for elderly people whose families ignored them. She tended to those imprisoned during the Montreal riots of 1837. Emilie’s dedication and compassion never seemed to dry up. Over time, more women joined her, eventually leading Emilie to found the Sisters of Providence.

More recently, Carol Kent‘s life changed forever when her twenty-five year old and only son –   model child, honours graduate, lieutenant in the navy, with an impeccable military record – shot  and killed his wife’s ex-husband. This devastating set of events taught Carol about God’s transforming power. With her only child now serving a life-sentence in jail, Carol embarked on a ministry of healing with families of inmates. She now shares her story in her book entitled When I Lay My Isaac Down and has become an international speaker.

Even though they lived nearly two centuries apart, these two women’s common thread is their steadfast willingness to embrace the suffering of the cross with love and grace. In thus losing their lives, these women found life in greater abundance. Neither of them bought into the illusion that God’s reign is about physical comforts, political victory, easy prizes, prosperity and privilege. Rather, both took up the cross of the One who saved us by his death – Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis says much the same thing. In a homily on the rich man and Lazarus he pointed out that just going to church does not make you a good person if you remain blind to the plight of sisters and brothers in need. Walking out of church just feeling real good and holy is not the point, as the priest in Paul Wilkes’ book ranted in his homily.

With the swelling refugee crisis at everyone’s doorstep, we have another chance to show that our faith in Jesus does lead to action. As a recent article in The Guardian said, we claim to follow one who himself was a child refugee.

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith – echoed in Emilie’s and Carol’s witness, echoed in the countless men and women opening their homes and hearts to today’s destitute peoples. Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. So … who do you say that I am?

Prairie Encounters

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A High-Wire Act

Because the word of God is what a preacher wrestles with in the pulpit, and because it is a living word, every sermon is God’s creation as well as the creation of the preacher and the congregation. All three participate, with the preacher as the designated voice. It is a delicate job for the one in the pulpit. … If the preacher leans too far one way, he will side with the text against the congregation and deliver a finger-pointing sermon from on high. If the preacher leans too far the other way, she will side with the congregation against the text and deliver a sermon that stops short of encountering God. (The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993)

It has been well over 20 years that Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers in the US, penned these words. By now a veteran preacher myself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Preaching is definitely a high-wire act and not for the faint-hearted. Hard and demanding as it is, however, the work of engaging the Word of God for preaching purposes is both exhilarating and immensely life-giving. You’d think that professional preachers, e.g. priests–ministers–pastors, would gladly take this task to heart every time it’s their turn to break open God’s Word to offer the community a morsel of divine sustenance for the soul.

Curiously, that does not seem to be the case. In his 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis devotes 25 paragraphs, or a whopping 20 pages, to the importance of the homily and how to prepare properly. My hunch is that he wouldn’t have seen the need to spill so much ink over this subject if the quality of preaching was up to Gospel standards.

Back in 2001, when publishing my book on preaching, I wrote:

Soon the preaching course moved beyond my comfort zone. It did not take long before I needed to risk the security of knowing who I was and who I was called to be. The paradox of learning more, and learning more deeply, became apparent. Gaining greater insight into the task of good preaching did not make my listening to Sunday homilies any easier. Developing a critical ear started to spell despair. More often than I care to admit I heard big gaps in Sunday homilies: those featuring the preacher more than God’s Word, those that  kept things too “nice” so as not to offend the listeners, those that divided people easily in “them” and “us” camps, , those that perpetuated gender stereotypes, those that excluded by sheer omission and silence, those used for spreading personal agendas, those that even left God’s Word untouched altogether. Many times I left Mass still hungry, even though I had received Communion. Now I wondered about the reasons for that hunger: there were in fact very few homilies that fed me spiritually. Receiving Communion alone was not sufficient.  I gained some understanding of and sympathy for people who say they “get nothing out of church,” even by those who come with sincere intent and a hungry heart. I felt deep sadness and frustration. I started to harken back to the days of ignorance in the best sense of that word  — it felt more comfortable not to know so much. 

Sadly, I am reminded of these words often and sigh. Take this past weekend. I had prepared my sermon for the Anglicans for Sunday morning, but attended Mass in a Catholic parish on Saturday evening. I was looking forward to the homily on the same Gospel passage, curious as to what the priest would have to say about this tale of two women in Mark’s Gospel (5:21-43). There were a few baptisms and, as a result, a lot of people at church who might not normally attend. But I left church, again, with a hungry spirit. For starters, the priest omitted the section of the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, thereby diffusing the Gospel passage of its shocking message. Then instead of being served the radical message of the Gospel we heard a 11-minute treatise on the history of baptism. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this illustrated exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor described in the above quote, i.e. leaning away from the text and delivering a sermon that stopped short of encountering God.

We’re not supposed to criticize Father’s sermons or be too hard on our priests as they’re so stretched in all directions. And it is quite possible that another soul was fed by the same sermon while mine was left wanting. Pope Francis gives us permission to take seriously our hungry spirits esp. as we leave church. I just hope that my hearers will tell me when my preaching words do or do not deliver food for their souls. I will let you judge for yourself. Here is my take on last Sunday’s Gospel: The Tale of Two Women

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