Climbing Down the Ladder

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to supportive and challenging guides and mentors. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

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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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