Naming our Golden Calves

Golden bull sclupture on grey glassIt’s ironic isn’t it that the Israelites created a golden calf and not a golden bull. I mean given their belief that their God was a jealous God, one prone to dangerous anger, one wonders at their use of a newborn, still fragile, unknowing of much of the ways of the world, as their symbol of deity.

In any case, the story is fraught with puzzlement. Like much of the Hebrew scripture, God is portrayed as hardly all-knowing and often not all-powerful. He often argues and gives in to human logic (or what passes for it), and he seems to be in need of human hands to accomplish his ends at times.

This is perhaps why some folks think they know God and know what He wants on any given issue.

So Moses argues with God and dissuades Him from destroying the people for their “stiff-neckedness”, something one would have thought God had learned by now. It shows that Moses is the more rational of the two, reminding God that all His work to date would be for naught, and worse yet, he would look pretty weak and puny to non-Hebrews if in the end, he just mashed his sculpture into a ball and started over again.

Literalists of course, ignore all the strange and contradictory conclusions to be drawn here. Historically a lot of them used to (and perhaps still do) tsk, tsk, at the Catholic church for its use of statues of saints, calling it idol worship. One of course often misses the plank in one’s own eye when busy pointing out the planks in other people’s.

There are so many problems with concluding that the Bible is the “word of God” in a literal fashion. Least of which is that none of the fundamentalist crowd will ever answer the questions. They are quick to point out ( having matured no doubt) that they don’t claim that God literally “wrote” the bible, but only that he caused the writers to write down “in their own words” all that he desired humanity to know and nothing he did not want them to know.  Since they have pointed this out, I think it only fair to answer, “well why?”

Why what, you ask? Well, if God “used” people to write “in their own words” my question would be why would he do that? A God who can inhabit a burning bush, cause tablets to magically contain the ten commandments, part waters, create plagues of locusts, bring forth water from a rock, can surely manage to make a book of instruction can’t He? So what is the point of using these intermediaries?

Well, the answer begs the question. It’s just a not very logical way of explaining why God didn’t just start with one, and go through a list of commands. He did it once, so I guess he could make a longer list right? It explains why the Bible doesn’t read very God-like. Rather of course, than just simply state the truth–men (maybe women but we don’t know) wrote it.

My friend, Dr. James McGrath from Butler, said it thusly:

“People spoke it, others wrote it, still others copied it, still others collected the writings together, still others elevated the collection to the level of Scripture, others claimed that collection to be the Word of God, then the words of God. And that doesn’t “settle it.” The Bible tells me so.

So to claim that it does settle it, under the fundamentalist adage, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, suggests to me somebody is busy sculpting that calf again.

Churches can become calves too. I’m afraid that given enough time, almost all of them do. The church becomes THE thing. Certainly true of the Roman church, where rules and rules upon rules tell every Catholic what to do and when. They’ve relieved a bit of that, given the falling numbers, but there is still plenty of it. The Roman church formed from a winning of the battle of orthodoxy. But it didn’t go away. It erupted full force during the Reformation. It continues today. Most every church is formed around the belief that only they have the “true” understanding. That human hubris  sounds pretty darn calfish to me.

Then of course there is the infighting within the denomination. Who is a heretic? Who is a real prophet, seer, Guru? What is right teaching, wrong? Churches split nowadays over gay rights even suing each other over the very physical structures. People vie for personal power within the institution. People steal from the coffers in the name of something or other that somehow or other they justify as being “Godly”.  Your preacher “needs” to live in splendor given that he is “sweatin’ for Jesus” and you have no idea how stressful that is with the powers of Satan working so feverishly at every moment.

All that power, so necessary to “rightly lead” is a calf for sure awaiting its gilt covering.

We can get real personal and find that calf growing in our garage with that car that is oh so essential “given my long commute”, or that state of the art entertainment center, because after working so hard for the Lord, I just got to unwind! The calf grows in our relationships as we struggle to be in control, and form our partner into what works for us, draped in a facade of “what is the right way” to be a couple.

We are a stiff-necked people. Until we stop using the poor Israelites to teach a story to OTHERS about their lack of piety, well, we will continue that tradition. It’s all about your own calves. They surround you and me.

Is it time to melt down a few?

Simplify. Quiet down.

Find your real God.

She’s waiting.

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Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

Become What You Behold

whenourheartsarewarmedwithloveThose who have visited here regularly expect the usual Sunday reflection on the lectionary offerings. That will not happen today, nor any time in the near future at least.

Ironically, as my life becomes more and more peaceful and settled, or perhaps because of it, God has seen fit to disturb my calm and shake things up. It is nothing of great import in the sense of urgency or some major life change. It is more a growing sense that God and I are off on another adventure. As usual, I have no clue where that will lead.

Let me say that my experience since leaving the Episcopal Church and returning to “Mother” Church has not been very successful. It has gotten worse (which utterly surprised me) since we moved here to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Here, let me just say, tradition is applauded, and conservatism prevails. I’ve been a back-bencher, biting my tongue at the recurring invitations to “pray that government recognize and protect religious freedom”, some slap at the Obama Administration and it’s attempts to insure that women who want contraceptive care can actually get it from their employers. You can extrapolate from there to all the other “issues”.

At my church, most homilies involve chastising me  as a Catholic for not going to confession enough, not going to church enough, not reading the bible enough. After having visited several in the area, the message seems universal. This suggests that the trouble is not with individual priests but with a seminary system that pushes this kind of message as “pastoral”.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a lot of Matthew Fox and other things that speak to the evolution of the Christ Consciousness, which arguable is the future of “religion” in all its guises. It is definitely not about my faith being “better” than yours, or my salvation more assured than yours. In fact, it focuses entirely on something quite different: what would Jesus do.

Yes, that trite phrase, so bandied about is in fact the reality of what we should be as Christians, indeed as God-lovers. Jesus is but the universal term for God-love. Buddha, Krishna, or a host of other terms would do as well.

And I get nothing of that in church. I found it most ironic that our parish priest some weeks ago offered five suggestions on what individuals and families might do with the summer “vacation” to enhance their faith lives. While I can’t recall all five, they were things like, “attend mass during the week”, attend a family retreat”, organize family weekend drives somehow around faith”. It had everything to do with improving one’s “faith”, thus improving one’s salvation.

There was NO suggestion to, as a family, collect food from neighbors for the food pantry. There was NO suggestion to collect used children’s books for families who can’t afford such luxuries. I could go on, but you get the point.

So my “going to mass” has been a thing to do, not a joyful experience.

All the while I’m just starting a Self-Realization program offered by the foundation started by the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. It is a melding of Christian principles, i.e., the Christ Consciousness with Hindu meditation practices.

I am more interested in my small time each week at the food pantry. I’m more interested in setting up a small “free library” for the tent city behind it, where so many homeless veterans live. I’m more interested in “doing”.

I see Matthew 25 as THE call, not just a reminder to offer to serve Thanksgiving dinner once a year to those “less fortunate.”

Surely I’m not alone. Surely that is why the pews are so empty each week. People are not being fed by their churches for the most part. They are not celebrating love. They aren’t sharing it either.

I ponder looking at one of the local Episcopal churches here. One is decidedly not for me, plastering its website with words like “Anglican tradition”, “traditional”, and “word of God”. I know where they are coming from. The other is quieter. If I choose that route, I shall speak with the rector and I will lay my cards out, and hope that I get honest answers not designed to “get me in the door” rather than meet my needs.

For church is supposed to meet my needs, not their own. The more I read of Matthew Fox’s history with the Roman Church, the more sickened I am by the damage done by the past two popes. I have hopes for Pope Francis, but I fear he will not do nearly enough. Part of the reason is that I don’t think he’s inclined to actually believe he should.

My church is simply wrong, as wrong as it can be in its stance on birth control, women’s role in the church, and gay rights. I am not sure Francis sees that. My church talks a good game against poverty, and the uneven distribution of wealth in this world, all the while continuing to be bloated with all the gaudy trappings of extreme wealth itself. It continues to belittle the efforts of liberation theologies and wars against the best scholars of our day, pushing them out of the church as it to Matthew Fox or marginalizing them as it did to Jon Sobrino and others like him. It threatens women religious because they, unlike their male counterparts, do march, do feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort those who are marginalized.

Through all this, the one sadness (for I am peaceful, serene, and feeling renewed regardless of how my words may sound) is that I can find no one to walk this walk with me. Try as I might, I cannot seem to locate a spiritual director to guide me through this labyrinth. There are no Franciscans or Dominicans here, religious that I have come to trust.

So I wander a bit in the dark.

But that may be what is best, it is hard to say. I know it shall all work out for the best. But I know I would meet less dead ends with the help of a professional. Perhaps that too is part of my journey. God is fond of confounding my expectations and asking for me to trust. This seems one of those times.

Here, I will chronicle that journey, not with the idea that this serves the needs of another. Each and every journey is utterly unique, started form its own place, and traveling at its own pace and along its own path. Perhaps you will recognize a stop along the way. Perhaps you will then be able to offer me a bit of advice to get around this or that obstacle. Perhaps I might comfort you once in a while, with a recognition that you’re not alone on that problem confronting you.

But that is where we stand, or I stand today.

Again, if this sounds sad, morose, or defeatist in any way, it is not meant to be. I feel free, gloriously at peace, and eager to see where all this leads. My inner work is renewed and feels fresh and alive. God is close, and life is marvelously new and beckoning.

Blessings to you all, and please offer every advice that comes to mind. Surely we are community.

 

i-goddess

 

Jesuit

A friend posted this on Facebook. It is compelling. It says what I feel. This is why this Church means so much to me still. Because within it are those who are moved by the Spirit of God to stand forth come what may and speak truth to power.

This is simply awesome.

 

Bert Thelen’s Letter of Resignation
June 2013

TO : Family, Relatives, and Friends, Colleagues and Partners in Ministry, CLC Members, Ignatian Associates, Project Mankind, Parishioners of St. John’s, St Benedict the Moor, Sacred Heart, Jesuit Classmates and Companions
FROM: Bert Thelen, S.J., June, 2013

Dearly Beloved,

May the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Peace of the Holy Spirit be with you! I am writing to tell you about what may be the most important decision of my life since entering the Jesuits. With God’s help, at the behest of my religious superiors and the patient support and wise encouragement of my CLC group and closest friends, I have decided to leave ordained Jesuit ministry and return to the lay state, the priesthood of the faithful bestowed on me by my Baptism nearly 80 years ago. I do this with confidence and humility, clarity and wonder, gratitude and hope, joy and sorrow. No bitterness, no recrimination, no guilt, no regrets.

It has been a wonderful journey, a surprising adventure, an exploration into the God Who dwells mysteriously in all of our hearts. I will always be deeply grateful to the Society of Jesus for the formation, education, companionship, and ministry it has provided, and to my family for their constant support. I can never thank God enough for the loving and loyal presence in my life of each and every one of you.

Why am I doing this? How did I reach this decision? I will try to tell you now. That is the purpose of this letter. For about 15 years now, as many of you have noticed, I have had a “Lover’s Quarrel” with the Catholic Church. I am a cradle Catholic and grew up as Catholic as anyone can, with Priests and even Bishops in our household, and 17 years of Catholic education at St. Monica’s Grade School, Milwaukee Messmer High School, and Marquette University. I took First Vows at Oshkosh in the Society of Jesus at age 25 and was ordained at Gesu Church to the priesthood ten years later in 1968. I have served the Church as a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee, Omaha, and Pine Ridge for 45 years, including 18 years on the Province Staff culminating in my being the Wisconsin Provincial for six years and attending the 34th General Congregation in Rome.

My last 14 years at Creighton and St. John’s have been the best years of my life. I have truly enjoyed and flourished serving as pastor of St. John’s. I cannot even put into words how graced and loved and supported I have been by the parishioners, parish staff, campus ministry, Ignatian Associates, and CLC members! It is you who have freed, inspired, and encouraged me to the New Life to which I am now saying a strong and joyful “Yes.” You have done this by challenging me to be my best self as a disciple of Jesus, to proclaim boldly His Gospel of Love, and to widen the horizons of my heart to embrace the One New World we are called to serve in partnership with each other and our Triune God. It is the Risen Christ Who beckons me now toward a more universal connection with the Cosmos, the infinitely large eco-system we are all part of, the abundance and vastness of what Jesus called “the Reign of God.”

Why does this “YES” to embrace the call of our cosmic inter-connectedness mean saying “NO” to ordained ministry? My answer is simple but true. All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. Lasting justice for Earth and all her inhabitants is only possible within this sacred communion of being. We need conversion – conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and even hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as inter-dependent partners , sharing in one Earth-Human community. In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, “Don’t Lord it over anyone … serve one another in love.” As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment. So, following my call to serve this One World requires me to stop benefiting from the privilege, security, and prestige ordination has given me. I am doing this primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples.

I have become convinced that the Catholic Church will never give up its clerical privilege until and unless we priests (and bishops) willingly step down from our pedestals. Doing this would also put me in solidarity with my friend, Roy Bourgeois, my fellow Jesuit, Fr. Bill Brennan, the late Bernard Cooke, and many other men who have been “de-frocked” by the reigning hierarchy. It will also support the religious and lay women, former Catholics, and gay and lesbian couples marginalized by our church. I want to stand with and for them. I am, if you will, choosing to de-frock myself in order to serve God more faithfully, truly, and universally.

But why leave the Jesuits? Make no mistake about it: the Society of Jesus shares in and benefits from this patriarchal and clerical way of proceeding. We still regard ourselves as the shepherds and those to whom and with whom we minister as sheep. I discovered this painfully when the Society of Jesus decided against having Associate members. We are not prepared for co-membership or even, it seems at times, for collaboration, though we pay lip service to it. “Father knows best” remains the hallmark of our way of proceeding. I can no longer, in conscience, do that. But I still honor and love my fellow Jesuits who work from that model of power over. It is still where we all are as a company, a Society, a community of vowed religious in the Roman Catholic church. Leaving behind that companionship is not easy for me, but it is the right thing for me to do at this time in my life. When I went through a formal discernment process with my CLC group, one member whose brilliance and integrity I have always admired and whose love and loyalty to the Jesuits is beyond question, said of my decision, “You cannot NOT do this!” He had recognized God’s call in me.

A few other considerations may help clarify my path. The Church is in transition – actually in exile. In the Biblical tradition, the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian captivities led to great religious reforms and the creation of renewed covenants. Think of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. I think a similar reform is happening in our Catholic faith (as well as other traditions). We have come through far-reaching, earth-shaking evolutionary changes, and a new (Universal) Church as well as a new (One) World is emerging. My decision is a baby step in that Great Emergence, a step God is asking me to take.

Consider this. Being a Lay Catholic has sometimes been caricatured as “Pray, pay, and obey.” Of course, that is a caricature, an exaggeration, a jibe. But it does point to a real problem. Recently, the hierarchical church mandated the so-called revision of the Roman Missal without consulting the People of God. It was both a foolish and a self-serving effort to increase the authority of Ordained men, damaging and even in some ways taking away the “Pray” part of “Pray, pay, and obey.” No wonder more and more Catholics are worshipping elsewhere, and some enlightened priests feel compromised in their roles. I, for one, feel that this so-called renewal , though licit, is not valid. It is not pleasing to God, and I feel compromised in trying to do it.

Now, consider this. All of this liturgical, ecclesial, and religious change is located in and strongly influenced by what both science and spirituality have revealed as happening to our world, our planet, our universe. The very earth we are rooted and grounded in, as well as the air we breathe and the water we drink, are being damaged and destroyed even beyond (some say) our capacity to survive. And, as Fr. John Surette, S.J., has so wisely observed, “Injustice for the human and destruction of Earth’s ecosystem are not two separate injustices. They are one.” Biocide is even more devastating than genocide, because it also kills future inhabitants of our precious Earth.

It is time. It is time to abandon our refusal to see that our very environment is central to the survival and well being of ALL earthlings. It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet. It is time to focus on the sacred bond that exists between us and the earth. It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation. It is time for a new vision of a universal Church whose all-inclusive justice and unconditional love, an expression of Christ consciousness and the work of the Holy Spirit, empowers ALL and can lead to a future that preserves the true right to life of all of God’s creatures. This includes future generations who will bless us for allowing them to live, evolve, and flourish. Can’t you hear them crying out, “I want to live, I want to grow, I want to be, I want to know?”

In light of all this, how can I not respond to the call both Isaiah and Jesus heard, the call of our Baptism? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring Good News to the oppressed.” All creation will be freed, and all people will know the freedom and glory of the Children of God. Yes, Lord, I will go. Please send me.

And that is why I am leaving Jesuit priesthood. Since first vows I have always thought and hoped and prayed that I would live and die in this least Society of Jesus. But now, something unexpected! A real surprise! I HAVE lived and died in the Society of Jesus, but, now, nearly 80, I have been raised to new life. I am born again – into a much larger world, a much newer creation. I have greatly benefited from the spiritual freedom given in and by the Society of Jesus. I feel no longer chained, limited, bound, by the shackles of a judicial, institutional, clerical, hierarchical system. As St. Paul once reminded the early Christians, “It is for freedom that you have been set free.” And as St. Peter, the first Pope, learned when he said to Jesus, “You know that I love you,” love is all about surrender and servanthood.

Thank you for your attention to this self presentation. I am grateful that you have followed me in the journey described here, and I am sorry for whatever sadness, disappointment, or hurt this may have caused you. But what I have written here is my truth, and I can’t not do it! If you want to discuss this with me, ask questions, or give me feedback, I welcome your response, either by letter, e-mail or phone.
(402-305-2665). Please pray for me, as I do for all of you, the beloved of my heart and soul.

Yours in the Risen Christ, Bert Thelen

More Questions

72If you are at all like me, you often have more questions than answers. I think that is a good thing. I’m always leery of anyone who seems to always have “the” answer.

Nothing in life is simple. I’m fairly sure at this point that it’s not meant to be. Puzzling seems to be a very human trait. We’re good at it.

So I confront the readings today and I find myself with more questions that answers.

Isaiah trumpets to the Hebrews who are returning from exile that Jerusalem awaits them. She awaits as a welcoming mother who will comfort in every way her children. She will care for their every want and need. We need only think of our own youth and the sweet comfort of a mother’s arms to soothe our bruised knees and our frightened minds at approaching thunder and lightning.

God, we understand, loves and cares for us in much the same way. God never is not Mother to us.

Paul tells us that he has died to all that is secular in the world. He lives in the Crucified Lord. Nothing else matters, not the Law certainly. Only this new person who has risen in the Risen Lord. No more will Paul concern himself with the mundane matters of earthly living.

Jesus speaks to his followers, selecting seventy-two to go in pairs to the towns he will later visit. They are in some sense to “prepare his way”. A whole series of instructions attach. They are confusing.

I struggle with what these readings are to mean to me.

In Paul I see a man, who by a revelation, has utterly turned about his life. He is poster child for the person who says A today and B tomorrow. The law enforcer now claims that the Law does not matter. He urges radical change, radical rethinking of what once was considered true. Are we to do the same? Are we to look at Church in some new ways? Are we to be thought blasphemer like Paul was?

Where is God in all this? How are we to know?

Paul seems to suggest that only by living utterly in the Cross can we be sure to make these radical changes rightly. Is that what he suggests?

And what of Jesus?

Why seventy-two?

Why in twos?

Why, why, why we ask.

What was it about these particular seventy-two? What of those not chosen? Why not the apostles? What made the seventy-two different? Better? Worse?

Jesus is at pains to make it clear that God is the actor, they merely the vehicle. Why should they greet no one along the way? Why burden only one household in the community for your entire stay? Why announce to the rejecting town that they are rejected? Is the point the teaching of the seventy-two or the work they will do on their travels? I wonder.

These questions puzzle me for nothing I read seems satisfying.

Surely there are answers to parts of the instructions. Jesus seems to want to make it clear that you are not the “main attraction” in these towns. No celebrations. No special foods. Go to them appearing as the poorest of the poor.

You are lambs. Not just sheep mind you, but lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. You are laborers, God is the Master sending you. The message seems to be one of trust. Trust expressed in Isaiah and by Paul. Trust in God, all will be well.

Don’t trouble me or you with human things. Don’t worry about feeding yourselves, housing yourselves, petty squabbles about this or that. Trust.

That appears to be the only common thread I can see.

Or is it all about freedom from bondage? Are all these lessons in the freedom we find in Christ?

Yet the readings are rich in other things that call out for a deeper meaning.

I am unable to see it. And perhaps for me, that is my message today.

What am I blinded to by the logs that have created a log jam in my mind?

The readings seem to offer tantalizing ideas of greater and deeper truths.

It is a lot to ponder.

Do you have thoughts to offer?

I would be so pleased if you can give me an answer or two.

And The Spirit Will Teach You Everything

pentecost-canzianiI spend most of my writing time talking about politics. If you devote any of your time reading about the state of our union, you undoubtedly know that the contentious nature of our politics has never been greater than it is today.

We come to our faith in the hopes of calmer and more peaceful time.

Yet, the same divisions that divide us politically, tend to filter into our faith traditions as well. We are divided there as well.

We divide over doctrine assuredly, and we divide over what constitutes proper obedience to God. We interpret differently about all too many issues, and miss along the way the truth that is offered to us in simple and complex stories, meant not to suffice as some history, but rather to teach important moral truths about us and our relationship to our God.

Yet, time and time again, when we look carefully, we find answers to our differences.

Today, on Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, that mysterious aspect of the Triune God that is in some sense ephemeral to us. Jesus we can “get”, for Jesus took human form, and we relate to Him in that fashion, as a person. We tend of course to do the same with God the Father, fashioning Him a “throne” and giving him a hands to hold us. The Spirit, however,  is wispy and not within our grasp physically.

Yet for us, the Spirit is perhaps the most approachable of the aspects of the Trinity. It is described in powerful language of wind and fire, things that were life-giving and life-sustaining. Wind moved the fields of grain, helped them to grow strong and thrive. It moved ships at sea, bringing us to safe harbor. Fire provided warmth, safety from wild animals, and the cooking medium for our food.

But I do not try to define the Spirit so much as acknowledge that it was a powerful physical presence to those who felt it that first Pentecost. They were astounded at its power, and perhaps, it was the seminal reason for the success of the early church. It more than anything gave proof to the teachings of the apostles who related stories of this mysterious but now departed “savior.”

And the Spirit is indeed powerful. Many attribute the Spirit for the Second Vatican Council, and its radical realignment of the Church. Many find the Spirit at work in important events of our time, drawing us together, bringing forth an unthought of consensus in our darkest of hours.

Paul said, that “No one can say Jesus Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

That is an amazing statement and should give us serious pause.

What Paul says is that if someone declares themselves to be a Christian, they can only say that because they are filled with the Spirit of God. They have been, in a sense, stamped with approval. Who are we, then, as mere mortals, those who are to be guided by that Spirit, to dispute what the Spirit has decided?

Does not God have the ability and power to move within any person God chooses? Does God have the ability and power to deny a person the Spirit? If the answer is yes, then we must seriously ask ourselves whether it is our place to claim that this person or that person, this group or that, fail to meet some standard we have erected as to what is “Christian” and what is not. We work against the Spirit when we do this. (To say nothing of judging how the Spirit does or does not move within the hearts of other faiths not Christian)

In our drive to “understand” we take upon ourselves the audacious “right” to decide that God would or would not come to “this type of person” or “that type of group”. We not only decide what God would or would not do, based upon our human thinking, but then we “act” for God in refusing such persons or groups the full welcome due them as members of our faith communities.

I was much taken aback when I learned that at the Cathedral home of Cardinal Dolan, the following took place:

After Timothy Cardinal Dolan wrote a column comparing practicing homosexuals and others who approach Holy Communion in a state of serious sin to children who fail to wash their hands before supper, homosexual Catholics and their supporters showed up for Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with filthy hands as a form of protest, and were denied entry.

Joseph Amodeo, the organizer of the protest, said that the act of dirtying their hands was an attempt to tell Cardinal Dolan that those who practice the gay lifestyle should be accepted as they are.

The small group of about ten protesters was intercepted by NYC police, who informed them that the Cathedral would not allow them to protest the Mass. Undaunted, Amodeo and his allies proceeded to St. Patrick’s anyway, where they were informed that they were welcome at Mass, provided they washed their hands.

Amodeo said he was “astounded” by the request.

“What astounded me most was when he said that we could enter the cathedral so long as we washed our hands first,” Amodeo wrote in The Huffington Post. “Even now, writing those words I find myself struggling to understand their meaning, while coming to terms with their exclusionary nature.”

This is taking over what belongs to God in the most awful way to my mind. Surely Jesus can come to those persons Jesus chooses under the bread and wine without the help of the Cardinal or any one for that matter. Surely Jesus can refrain from joining to any person under the bread and win without help of the Cardinal as well.

We do well to remember that we are creature, not mini-gods. None of us, from the laity to the clergy stands in any different place vis-a-vis our Creator.

The Spirit goes where it will, and it affects what It chooses. Let not we poorly understanding humans get in the way.

Amen.

The Agony of the Scandal

Catholic bishop head in ground sexual abuse scandal denial child rape abuse hypocrisy vatican pope liars roman catholic churchLast Wednesday I was greeting some workmen come to do some decking work on our patio. Noticing the smudge of black soot upon my forehead, Ernest said, “You’re Catholic huh?”

I nodded, and mumbled something like, “Yes, unfortunately sometimes.”

I could barely believe that that came out. And I found myself mulling over the fact that what once was a proud declaration “YES! I’m Catholic!”, had become something to be mildly ashamed of.

I began to ponder upon this, as I have more than once. The Church that I had joined so happily was almost an embarrassment to me. Yet, I feel it is my Church, one that I must stick with, albeit with all it’s warts and self-inflicted wounds.

Of course what prompted the remark I made Wednesday, were more revelations about the priest abuse scandal in Los Angeles, and how then Cardinal Mahoney had not just remained mute as authorities sought to investigate criminal charges against priests in the archdiocese, he actually aided and abetted them avoiding justice, by assignments outside the state.

In a seeming never-ending series of such announcements, both in America and in Ireland and elsewhere, the Church never seems to get it. Some of the cover-ups have occurred as recently as three years ago. It is horrifying to regular Catholics, two-thirds of which in the US no longer attend mass on any reasonable basis.

I was watching UP with Chris Hayes this morning and the discussion was  about the scandals and the recent decision on the part of Pope Benedict to step down. Actually Benedict’s decision is a model for what should have been done by Monsignors, bishops and cardinals throughout the church when it was determined that they had abused their office in trying to hush the abuse of young children and keep it under wraps.

All those who participated should have resigned their office. ALL of them. Any priest, either by evidence or by confession, who was guilty of abusing children should have been dismissed from all duties as a priest immediately. A church that can pour literally millions of dollars into the Knights of Columbus for the purpose of funding NOM and preventing loving people from a legal union, can certainly have afforded to use millions to help all the victims of abusing priests.

That is where the anger lies.

But it goes deeper than that, I realized, as I listened to the panel discuss the issues.

Many priests and lay have decried the incessant and relentless interest that the Church maintains about sexual issues. Certainly if one looks at the Gospels, one finds few references by Jesus to the issue, yet the Church finds itself embroiled in what are sometimes referred to as “pelvic issues” constantly. At least they are the favorite issue of the media.

As you know, I am “living in sin” as far as the Church is concerned, because my husband has been previously divorced. Neither he nor his exes were Catholics. I am the only Catholic, yet our marriage is considered illegal and at age 62, they insist he should seek annulment. I can make the step to say that the Church has some right to make this declaration, however silly it all seems to be, but the real rub for me, and where I dig in my heels, is that it denies me the right to full communion with the Church.

I am denied Eucharist. The Church decides that my marriage makes me an unrepentant sinner, and unworthy of union with the Lord. There I disagree. To a Catholic, nothing is more sacred, more awe-inspiring than the Eucharist, where we, (including myself) believe that in some mysterious way, Jesus joins with us in union. To deny me this, is to deny me the very essence of the Church.

I of course ignore the rule. I freely receive communion (although of course I remain a visitor to my church rather than a member where prying questions might lead to uncovering my status). I feel deeply that it is Jesus who invites us to the table, not the Church. If Jesus determines that I am unworthy, then my Lord has the perfect ability to avoid this union and I  will partake of simple bread and wine. That I am willing to accept as possible. But the Church’s opinion is not of concern to me.

The Church speaks boldly its objection to sex without benefit of marriage, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. These are all “pelvic” issues. Yet, when faced with its own sex-related crimes, which are not religious “crimes” but real and terrible crimes, it doesn’t correct the wrong to the best of its ability, rather it flagrantly avoids punishment and sets the worst possible example. Why should anyone listen to the Church’s pronouncements on how they should conduct their most intimate life when the Church still refuses to address its own failures and crimes?

We as laity cannot fathom why this was done. No good reason has been proffered as to why the Church did not do the obvious thing–dismiss each priest immediately and accompany the victims to the police and stand by them as they gave their evidence. There is no excuse. For God’s sake, our Lord stood by  truth even when they hung him on a tree! Where in the scriptures does the Vatican find excuse for its behavior in all this?

If the Church feared losing it’s power and authority, well it has accomplished that in its attempt to sweep it all under the rug. Jesus lost all authority and power from a human point of view when he went to Calvary. He lost his very life. Yet he gained everything, a loyal following that, has spread his Word worldwide, and engaged in incredible acts of charity and love for our fellow man.

This is being lost. All the good that the Church has done and counseled in the area of poverty, fair wages, immigration, universal health care, and justice issues throughout the world is being threatened by this ugly and awful response to a crisis that should never have been a crisis in the first place. Men who prey on children seek places to have easy access to them. The priesthood was always a logical place to expect it. Yet, we find ourselves here at  this place, with this scandal.

Why don’t we all leave? Because it is OUR Church, and we still remember what she has been and can be again–the place of refuge for the weary and downtrodden, the home for those rejected because of arbitrary conditions. It will once again return to being the shepherd she was meant to be. That is why we stay.

Amen.

What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.

Amen

**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

When Human Minds Decide

 

 

One of the beautiful parts of faith for me is communion.

I am well aware that biblical experts would argue that the gospels as they relate to the issue of communion are not to be read literally. I am aware that the statements attributed to Jesus are considered more metaphor than as directive, more symbol than substance.

Yet, the act of communion seeks, it seems to me, to elevate us as humans into the realm of the divine in a way that is both beautiful and enriching.

I choose, by faith, to believe that in some mysterious way, I draw closer to my God through the act of communion.

As such, it was the most, nay, only, real pain that I felt when I was advised that my marriage to a previously divorced man, made me unfit for communion. I confess, knowing all that I know about the Catholic faith, which is fairly extensive, that I never thought that marriage to a divorced man who himself was not Catholic nor ever married to a Catholic would place this impediment in front of me.

It is the main reason that I left the church for a couple of years and sought a religious home in the Episcopal church. There I learned much. I had been well grounded in basic theology and biblical studies beforehand through the efforts of a priest and a couple of extraordinarily scholarly nuns. I was well on my way to the progressive side of my Church.

When I entered into communion with the Episcopal church, I learned even more. Again, I was gifted with many scholarly priests and laity who helped me to broaden my understanding of my Christian faith. I learned most especially that no human being has the right (moral at least) to judge that anyone else is unworthy of receiving communion.

That has come to be my belief. God is more than capable of making this decision with no input from our frail human understanding. God can withhold Himself (if you can imagine such a thing) from those who He deems unworthy. God’s church is there for one purpose–to bring people to know God, and to work in community to assist the uplifting of each and every person to full humanity–meaning that each is fed, clothed, schooled, medically treated, housed, and provided with good work at fair wages. The Church calls us to peaceful coexistence with those of other faiths and to community and common goals of good will toward all.

That is why it hurts so much to witness those who accept the Church’s ugly decision to withhold communion from its own. A woman of Asian descent sits close to me most Sundays. She is soft-spoken, with a sweet smile. She was a reader of the Word a few Sunday’s ago. She read a piece from James so beautifully that it was the best reading I have ever heard. Yet, when it comes to communion, she sits down and prays by herself.

Last Sunday, a man sat in front of me. He was clearly not wealthy, and was a simple sort. He prayed and moved through the Mass as one expects of someone who was a cradle-Catholic. He held to some of the “old” ways. He exhibited the simple piety that I find so endearing among so many who are in the later years and were raised in the faith. He too sat down when it came to communion.

I know not what the “impediments” these two lived with. I know that it would do no good to speak to them, for they accept without question the church’s right to impose this exile upon them. They would be appalled no doubt at the suggestion that they should go forth to receive the bread and wine.

I am only so very sad for them. For I find it so unnecessary and so harsh and unfair. It is not in line with the teachings of Christ. It is a human rule, based on some logical deduction of long-held and established truths of the church. While logic often times is useful in discovering truth, it sometimes leads to unfairness and wrong thinking.

This is one of them from my point of view.

 

 

Taste and See the Goodness!

 

 

Sophia, or Lady Wisdom tells us:

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven columns;
she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,
yes, she has spread her table.
She has sent out her maidens; she calls
from the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To the one who lacks understanding, she says,
Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.” Prv 9: 1-6

Lady Folly tells us:

The woman of folly is boisterous,
She is naive and knows nothing.

She sits at the doorway of her house,
On a seat by the high places of the city,

Calling to those who pass by,
Who are making their paths straight:

“Whoever is naive, let him turn in here,”
And to him who lacks understanding she says,

“Stolen water is sweet;
And bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”

But he does not know that the dead are there,
That her guests are in the depths of Sheol. Prv 9: 13-18

We are called to wisdom, signified by the “perfect” table set by Lady Wisdom, and not the table of Lady Folly, who tells us, “no matter, eat, drink, and be merry–take what you need, cheat, lie, it is all toward the goal of satisfying only you.”

Yet, as always the question remains, how do we discern the wise and forsake that which is evil and wrong? On some things of course, it is quite easy–we know not to cheat or murder. We know not to steal, but what exactly constitutes cheating?

Paul offers us his advice:

Brothers and sisters:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks always and for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Eph 5: 15-20

Note that he tells us to “try” to understand the will of God. Paul reminds us that it is not always easy. He suggests that immersing ourselves in scripture and prayer, and praying continually are useful in opening ourselves to the Spirit which we know will guide us aright.

Lastly in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us the most important help: the Eucharist. Now admittedly, not all of the Christian community agree that the bread and wine that we receive each mass is indeed the real body and blood of our Lord, changed in some mysterious way from their original elements.

We as Catholics do believe this, and we take this offering as God joining us in a special way that we can count on to bring us to God’s will for us.

What does that mean?

Often, as a dissenting Catholic, I find that those who profess a strict adherence to church teaching, tell me that my way is “easy”. It’s easy to just love everyone they claim. It’s hard, so they say, to cut across what is popular and secularly permissible. That is how they discern “it is the right thing.”

But is it hard?

I really don’t think so.

If we take the Bible as a whole, we see a steady progression, it seems to me, in understanding that God’s love extends to all his children. Those that thought they had his exclusive attention are often angry and shocked, and yes, unwilling to accept that “others” also find His favor.

While it may seem “hard” to speak against the poor’s “drain” on the budget, or why gays should be denied marriage and the full sacramental life in the church, or why women should be regulated in their health care by more “knowing” men, is it really hard to take these positions? Or is it really quite easy?

Easy in the sense that it always makes us feel better when we can point our finger at someone, anyone, and say they are not as good. They don’t live “right” in one fashion or another. They are different, not holy and “saved” because they are not willing to forgo this or that perceived sin. But what is hard about not getting an abortion if you are post menopausal? What is hard about not engaging in homosexual behavior if you are not homosexual? What is hard about not marrying a divorced person if you are happily married to your first spouse? What is hard about working hard and paying your taxes if you are blessed with a good-paying job.

What is hard about being “holier than thou” toward someone else? It’s really easy isn’t it? It is human nature to not want to feel oneself to be the most disadvantaged, the worst off. We quickly look for someone to point to who is worse off, or simply worse  as we define things.

In discerning that is God’s will for us, it seems to me that we are better off doing that which doesn’t divide people into groups of “like me” and “not like me.” For in the end, we are all God’s chosen. We are not God. Our job is be gracious, kind, loving, charitable, open-hearted, strong in spirit, helpful, compassionate. If God wishes to judge anyone as unworthy, I’m sure he doesn’t need our help.

Lift up your Hearts to the Lord!

Amen.

 

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