Monday, June 28, 2010

Father Fred

I attended Mass yesterday morning for the first time in over two months.

I have been visiting my mother in the small village where she lives, about four hours from Vancouver by car. Because we knew who the priest would likely be at the church in the village, at my suggestion we drove 50 kilometres to a parish on the outskirts of the nearest city. Because we also knew who the celebrant at this church would be.

The priest who celebrated the Mass we attended today happens to be the son of two of my mother’s fellow parishioners, a couple that she is quite close to. Father Fred has been the grateful beneficiary of my mother’s baking, so he and she have also developed a rather chummy relationship on their own. Needless to say, she enthusiastically agreed to my suggestion. (A couple of other enticements were the brunch we would have with my brother and his wife after Mass and, as I found out when we entered the church, the lovely upholstered pews that no doubt made her arthritic back sigh in grateful relief.)

Apart from the emotional connection between my mother and this priest, I had the feeling that Father Fred was likely going to be “my kind of priest.” I was not wrong.

Shortly after we arrived in church I could hear, from a pew behind us, a voice in conversation that very quickly erupted into the kind of laughter you just know is coming from a warm heart. I had never met Father Fred but somehow I knew the voice I heard was his. He had sat himself down in a pew near the rear of the church and seemed to be drawing parishioners to him as if he were everyone’s old friend. Yet Father Fred had only arrived in the diocese less than a year ago and had just been appointed parish administrator at this church following the departure of the long-serving pastor.

The Mass was a treat. Father Fred’s celebration of the liturgy was sincerely reverent yet engaging, in the sense that he was not overly or falsely pious (as many priests appear to me to be) and in no way placed himself above the congregation (metaphorically speaking, of course, given the physical placement of the altar). He read and recited the prayers in a manner that gave the impression he was engaging both God and the people in the pews in a meaningful yet friendly dialogue. This casual-reverential approach is unique to my limited experience of Catholic liturgy.

The homily, delivered in an impassioned voice that never faltered, was a masterpiece of pointed brevity that spoke to the heart of every person in the church. It drew upon the liturgy of the day, as apparently it is required to do, yet it avoided the usual journey into irrelevance that has me thinking about dinner by the third sentence following the obligatory joke. Instead of dogma we were given a very practical interpretation of the liturgy as an admonition to constantly review our faith and our relationship with God to ensure that our priorities are in order and that we are being true to ourselves and to God.

After one Mass I cannot be completely sure, but it appears to me that this priest has found the via media—the balance between what he is bound to do and to say as a priest in the modern Church and a mature faith that allows him to answer the call to be who he truly is—and walks it comfortably and faithfully every moment of every day. If what I observed today and what I have heard from my mother reflect the truth of Father Fred’s priestly journey, it is indeed a blessed and sacred journey.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Brian McLaren: "Why I am Green"

There is a wonderful chapter in Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy. The chapter, entitled "Why I am Green," gives an account of McLaren's own involvement, in a small way, in environmental stewardship and then looks at the trend of increasing interest on the part of Christians in protecting and preserving God's creation. A series of chapter subsections outline the movement away from selfish and destructive individualism and consumerism toward a new "green theology":

  • The standard, stagnant theology of creation/fall is giving way to a more vigorous theology of continual creation
  • The eschatology of abandonment is being succeeded by an engaging gospel of the kingdom [in other words, "the doctrine of last things or end times that expects the world to be destroyed" within a fixed period of time is giving way to "the present hope of 'the kingdom of God' that is so central in Jesus' message."]
  • Increased concern for the poor and oppressed leads to increased concern for all of creation
  • There is a succession in our understanding of ownership [McLaren asks: "Can we imagine other understandings of ownership that acknowledge, whatever land records say, that the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains? Can we imagine an economy based on stewardship rather than exclusive ownership?"]
  • There is a succession from local/national to global/local ["Creatures live more essentially in local watersheds than nations. Creatures live in ecological habitats, not just political states. Lines on maps between nations and states are, in a sense, human fictions, changing fashions, revealing some truths but obscuring others, facilitating justice in some ways but frustrating it in others"]
  • A new understanding of neighborliness is replacing an old sense of rugged (a.k.a. selfish) individualism
In this final subsection McLaren says the following, with which I heartily concur:

What exactly will we do differently in this emerging theological habitat, this new stage in the spiritual forest succession? That remains to be seen. But for starters, we will see differently and care differently and value differently. If those differences catch on widely among Christians, with Christianity being the largest religion in the world, there are bound to be good effects in our world.

Ultimately those effects will have to go beyond the important but limited conservation actions of individuals (recycling, reusing, abstaining, etc.). The effects of caring will have to change our systems - transportation systems that depend on fossil fuels and that divide and devastate our nonhuman neighbors` habitats, housing systems that maximize human impact through suburban sprawl, farming systems that rape rather than steward land, advertising systems that make us want more stuff that we don`t need and that will soon fill even more square miles with rotting, rusting trash.


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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, by Marcus Borg: A Review

I love the writing of Marcus Borg. What he says about Christ and Christianity in books like The Heart of Christianity and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time rings so true for me that I sometimes wonder why I read anything else about religion and faith.

Borg’s latest work is a novel, his first. Unfortunately, one can only hope that it is also his last. In the Preface to Putting Away Childish Things, he says:

I am aware that I may not have a novelist’s imagination or gifts [No kidding]. And I am aware that if I were not already a somewhat established author, this novel might not have been published [Ditto]. It’s not easy to find a publisher for a first novel.

Lots of awful novels do in fact get published. But this one frankly has a self-indulgent and slightly exploitative feel about it given the esteem in which Marcus Borg is generally held.

Good novels are about interesting and complex characters who find themselves in interesting and complex situations of conflict. The plot in this novel is thin at best. The protagonist, Kate Riley, who is a professor of religion at a small liberal college in Wisconsin, is eligible for tenure in one year. As she has published a well-received scholarly work on the gospel of James and her classes are very popular, the tenure seems assured. She is concerned, however, when one of her senior colleagues hints that her recent published work is less scholarly, more “popular,” and a little too Christian. She also learns that parents have been writing letters to the college complaining that she is using her classes to proselytize to her students.

The situation becomes more complicated when Kate is invited to apply for a one-year position at a well-known seminary and is led to believe that she would be the preferred candidate; in this position she would be encouraged to teach within the context of her Christian faith. She asks her present institution for a leave of absence but they are reluctant to give it to her as she is not yet tenured.

When Kate is formally offered the seminary job she must make a choice between a good chance at job security and an opportunity to do what she really loves to do but that does not offer security. Anyone who knows Marcus Borg will have no difficulty guessing Kate’s choice.

A couple of subplots that could have been interesting actually go nowhere. In one of these, a Wells student who belongs to a conservative Christian group on campus attends one of Kate’s classes because she has begun to question some of the elements of her faith. Again, however, the story only serves as a rather clumsy platform for Borg’s religious ideas. In the second, a romantic relationship from the past between Kate and a former professor, who will be her colleague at the seminary, appears as if it may be rekindled. The professor is perhaps the most interesting and well-developed character in the novel.

I found hardly any of the characters in Putting Away Childish Things, including Kate Riley, to be either interesting or complex. Because I was not especially interested in Kate’s character, I did not find myself caring very much about her conflict.

Information that is supposed to tell us something about the main character in fact tells us nothing because it is never connected to her developing story in any way; the information itself is clichéd and boring:

• She drives a new Volvo—standard transmission

• Her parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was in high school

• She frequents a seedy neighbourhood tavern because she likes to smoke and drink Guinness there and write in her journal (even though she lives alone and could just as easily—and more economically and comfortably—do these at home)

• She is attracted to one of her male colleagues but he turns out to be gay (The most boring conversations in the book are between her and this character; see below)

• She belongs to an Episcopalian congregation whose pastor is a woman (as it happens, Borg’s wife is an Episcopalian priest)

• She likes to wear red shoes

One can not help but suspect that Borg (of Scandinavian roots) likes Volvos with standard transmission, smokes the occasional cigarette (or was once a smoker and still misses it) and drinks Guinness.

The novel is full of boring conversations that are either irrelevant altogether or are used clumsily for exposition or to present the author’s views on various aspects of Christianity. In one of these pieces of dialogue the main character is having dinner at the home of one of her colleagues at the start of the Christmas break.

“So,” Geoff said, putting his napkin in his lap, “I’ve told you about my next few days. What do yours look like?”

“Well, I’m spending Christmas alone again this year. So I’m basically going to be at home—with myself. I mostly love the thought. Except next week won’t feel exactly alone—I’ve got all those radio interviews to do on my book. Fourteen—that’s a lot.”

“Good for you,” Geoff said. “Your publicist has done a good job.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Kate paused to take a bite. “But still I wish there weren’t quite so many. This duck is fantastic as usual, Geoff.”

“Thank you. Are you nervous about the interviews?”

We are not exactly experiencing poetry here.

In Chapter 3 Kate is being interviewed about her new book Two Stories, One Birth. The author uses the interviews to offer his view of the purpose of the biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, as well as to expose the “other side”—the literal-factual interpretation. The first interview takes six pages, the second two pages.

Borg says that he had wanted to write a novel for a long time. I, for one, certainly hope that through this rather self-indulgent exercise he has got that desire out of his system. I also hope that he returns quickly to what he does best: lovingly and wisely nudging us out of the nest of inflexible Tradition and biblical literalism and into free flight buoyed by our absolute trust in God.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reconciling Faith and Disbelief (I)

Shortly after I returned to Catholicism after many years of “lapse,” I had lunch with a young priest. In our conversation the subject of faith came up and the priest told me that when he was a teenager, he, like many other young people, was bored with church and did not share the strong faith of his parents. I asked him what had restored his faith so radically that he decided, before he reached the age of twenty, that he wanted to become a priest. He gave me a few reasons, but the first thing he said in answer to my question was, “Well, we all have to believe in something.”

As I had already begun the great struggle between faith and reason, I was stunned by this statement. Was that all that stood between agnosticism and faith—a conscious decision to “believe in something”? Do we just sit down one day and say, “Let’s see now. I have to believe in something, so I guess, since I was raised Catholic and I pretty much know all the doctrines and stuff, it might as well be Catholicism!” And once that belief decision is made we are somehow able to accept holus-bolus the body of Catholic teaching. No doubts, no going back, no questioning this belief or that doctrine. True peace of mind.

People like this young priest intrigue me. He appears to be completely comfortable with the something he has decided to believe in. He is always smiling or laughing, and he is warm, genuinely interested, full of energy, witty—the guy appears to be genuinely happy. I have spoken with him numerous times and listened to many of his homilies, so I know that he is also intelligent.

Despite his years of seminary indoctrination, his conservative cultural background, and the predominance of orthodox Catholicism among clergy and laypeople in the archdiocese, it is difficult to imagine that a state of cognitive dissonance does not at some point swamp this young man’s confident and comfortable belief. Can there be no conflict when you refuse Holy Communion to a couple you know is living together without the sacrament of matrimony yet offer it to a “legally” married couple you are 99 percent certain are using contraceptives? In your homily, when you tell us what God wants us to do, do you really believe you know what God wants? I am curious as to what happens to the orthodox believer when new information or problems of everyday life intrude upon the comfort zone of belief.

If we acknowledge God as our creator, we must also acknowledge that part of that creation is a brain and that the little creature is simply not content to accept whatever it is told. As modern, educated individuals, we also have to acknowledge the significant body of religious-historical research, biblical scholarship, and theological insight that has formed over the past one hundred years.

Let’s start with the concept of faith. If you asked any Christian the definition of faith, the reply would likely be that faith is belief; the more intellectually sophisticated Christian might say that faith was belief in something for which there is no evidence. When I was thinking of becoming a priest, I had a talk with a spiritual director (who was actually recommended to me by the young priest I just mentioned). This priest, who writes a weekly article on scripture in the archdiocesan newspaper, told me that he had no difficulty believing in God. After all, he said—with a straight face—he had never seen Australia but it is obvious to everyone that Australia exists. Well, Father, that’s because we all have to believe in something; it might as well be Oz.

How did it come to this?

It turns out that the concept of faith as belief is relatively new. Renowned New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells us that “two developments account for its dominance in modern Western Christianity.” The first is the Protestant Reformation, which created a number of different Christian denominations, all of which distinguished themselves from other groups by emphasizing what they believed, “that is, by their distinctive doctrines or confessions.” In the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation, Catholics reasserted their version of Christian truth.

The second development was the Enlightenment, which “identified truth with factuality” and which “called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings.” So Christians had to defend their territory by declaring the literal-factual “truth” of the virgin birth, the miracles performed by Jesus, the Resurrection, and all the other biblical events; and if you didn’t believe these truths, you had no business calling yourself a Christian.

The spiritual director who believes in Australia told me he thought the main reason people leave the Church is that they are lazy. I think not. I rather suspect that one of the most important reasons is that thanks to modern science, modern education, modern information technology, they simply can no longer believe what their church tells them they must believe. Marcus Borg says that “we cannot easily give our heart to something that the mind rejects.”

So here’s the point: the post-Enlightenment church has defined faith for us as belief in the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible and agreement with/adherence to a set of doctrines stipulated by the institution. In the process, the institutional church, with its magisterium, its hierarchy, its rituals in all their sumptuousness, and in its desire to protect its power and authority, has in some ways cut itself adrift from the God of love and mercy; it has, to a degree, separated itself from the Jesus of the gospels. In so doing it has created an unending cycle of conflict with those who don’t accept the whole package but wish to remain in the church, and it has cast many others out to wander alone in the desert.

So what are the “faithful non-believers” supposed to do?

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Get a (Prayer) Life

Our family was brought up Catholic. My parents were very strict about our attending church; even when we had become somewhat independent, as long as we were living under my father’s roof, he required that we attend Sunday Mass. After we got out from under that roof (and for some of us it could not have happened fast enough), Sunday mornings continued to be strictly observed—as blessed recovery time for the activities of Saturday night. Gradually as life got the better of us, though, some of us began to be drawn back to church.

Not necessarily the Catholic Church, however.

One of my sisters belongs to the Anglican Church. There is a reason she is a practising Anglican and not a practising Catholic. No, she is not gay. There are other reasons people choose not be Catholic. One of those is why she is Anglican.

Let’s just leave it at that.

Anyway, it seems that (some?) Anglican parishes invite members of the congregation to give homilies on occasion and as I learned from Facebook, on a recent Sunday it was my sister’s turn. I asked her if I could read her sermon and she reluctantly sent it to me (She thinks I am a writer. How wrong is that.)

Clearly she worked very hard at preparing her homily and I think she did a good job. She certainly made a deliberate effort to connect the gospel story to the lives of people in the pews; I have not heard many homilies delivered by priests that make such a connection.

She has asked me not to publish her sermon on this blog, so I guess I do have to respect her wishes.

Also, I am afraid of her.

So the gist of the sermon (I am allowed to talk about it, just not publish it) is that like Jesus, who in Luke’s gospel of the day raised the widow’s son from the dead out of compassion for her in her grief and desperation, God is compassionate toward ordinary people like us and does on occasion answer our prayers. She points out that there are numerous examples in scripture of God intervening in the lives of men and women and giving them help.

I told my sister that even though I did not believe in a personal God who intercedes in our affairs as a result of prayer, I liked her sermon. My sister is one smart and thoughtful person. She replied by asking me what kind of prayer life I had if my faith did not include this compassionate God or “a personal Holy Spirit.” She said that the two were closely linked for her.

I had to admit to her that I do not actually have a prayer life. I have not been able to pray with any kind of passion, or even sincerity, since I decided to become Catholic again. I do believe that God is guiding me on my journey; I do believe that God inspires me when I write well; I do believe that the Kingdom of God is within if only we will recognize and embrace it. But I do not know yet how to connect with God through prayer.

I am working on this aspect of my faith.

My sister is a Christian who really thinks about her faith, who tries to live her faith. I really admire that.

And to indulge a little in one of the seven deadlies, I even envy it.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I have been thinking on and off for a long time about words that we often use or hear in a religious context but that we may not understand in their fullest and deepest meaning and that we may not therefore be able to apply to our daily lives. They are beautiful words that have a kind of mystical power to touch our hearts, yet I suspect that we do not think of them often. And where do we go to find the "true" meanings of these words? How do we learn to live lives of humility and compassion, to recognize and accept God's grace, to truly forgive our "enemies" (who sometimes include ourselves)?

Let's think about forgiveness, for example. I have almost finished reading Wm. Paul Young's The Shack. In case you are not familiar with this book (and be warned, I will be giving away some of the elements of the plot here), it is the story of a man, Mack, whose daughter is abducted from the campsite where she and her father and siblings have been spending the weekend and is taken to a remote mountain shack and brutally murdered. The family is of course devastated by this tragedy. A few years after the death of his daughter, Mack finds a note in his mailbox. The note is from "Papa" and suggests that Mack make a visit to "the shack" as Papa will be there. Papa is the name that Mack's wife uses for God. While Mack suspects that the note is some kind of sick joke, perhaps on the part of his daughter's murderer, he is somehow compelled to make the trip to the shack.

As it turns out, it is not only Papa (God) who is at the shack (in the form of a smiling African-American woman) but also Jesus, and Suraya, a somewhat ephemeral Asian-looking woman who is apparently the Holy Spirit. During the time he spends with this Trinity at the shack, Mack learns a great deal about life and death, about humanity, about God, and about himself. Near the end of Mack's time at the shack, God (who has changed into an older, outdoorsy-type man with long white hair pulled back into a ponytail) takes Mack up into the mountains, and before showing him the place where his daughter's body lies, firmly but lovingly nudges Mack into forgiving her killer.

But Mack must first acknowledge the malice and bitterness he feels toward this man:

"Son, you need to speak it, to name it."
Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face, and between sobs Mack cried, "Papa, how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy? If he were here today, I don't know what I would do. I know it isn't right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me... If I can't get justice, I still want revenge."

Papa tries to explain to Mack the true nature of forgiveness: that it can lead to redemption for the one forgiven, that it is not about forgetting or excusing, that it does not require the establishment of a relationship with the one forgiven. But Mack cannot let go:

"I don't think I can do this," Mack whispered.

"I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver," answered Papa, "to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through? If anything, he feeds on that knowledge. Don't you want to cut that off? And in doing so, you'll release him from a burden he carries whether he knows it or not - acknowledges it or not. When you choose to forgive another, you love him well."

"I do not love him."

"Not today, you don't. But I do, Mack, not for what he's become, but for the broken child that has been twisted by his pain. I want to help you take on the nature that finds more power in love and forgiveness than hate."

Papa finally gets through and Mack starts to cry.

He wept until he had cried out all the darkness, all the longing, and all the loss, until there was nothing left.

With his eyes now closed, rocking back and forth, he pleaded, "Help me, Papa. Help me! What do I do? How do I forgive him?"

"Tell him."

Mack looked up, half expecting to see a man he had never met standing there.

"How, Papa?"

"Just say it out loud. There is power in what my children declare."

Mack began to whisper in tones at first halfhearted and stumbling, but then with increasing conviction. "I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you."

Most of us do not have as much to forgive as Mack does. Yet we do carry anger and resentment around with us, usually for far too long. Often we do not even acknowledge it until some new offence perpetrated by the one or ones we need to forgive causes it to flare up again. And I do think Papa is right: unforgiving anger will destroy our joy and our ability to love fully and openly.

Some of us carry great anger and resentment toward our Church for how it treats gay people - and the children of gay people. These feelings have been expressed vehemently and often in this blog and in others. Some will say that the anger we feel and express is righteous (like Jesus' anger toward the moneychangers in the temple) because we are so keenly and profoundly aware that what the Church teaches and the actions precipitated in the name of that teaching are terribly wrong. They might say that anger fuels action and action fuels change. They are, I believe, right in what they say.

After Mack has forgiven his daughter's murderer, he asks Papa: "So is it alright if I'm still angry?"

Papa was quick to respond. "Absolutely! What he did was terrible. He caused incredible pain to many. It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong. But don't let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck."

The modern Church is not a murderer, but I do feel anger and pain and loss (I had a sad dream last night about the parish I recently left in protest). I must somehow recognnize, however, that loving her (which I still do) and forgiving her (which I am having great difficulty with) will free me to creatively use the anger I still feel to help change her.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Outrage 2

The other day I saw a tweet from Dignity USA that referred to the opinion article by Michael Pakaluk that recently appeared in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston. I read the article and was almost sick to my stomach.

Dignity asked people to write to the newspaper, so I did. What follows is the content of my letter, slightly modified to correct errors made because the letter was written in a state of anger:

We can only counter the kind of wilful ignorance and distortion of the truth reflected in Michael Pakaluk’s article “Children in the custody of same-sex couples in parochial schools,” which was recently published in The Pilot, by ensuring that the real truth about homosexuality and gay relationships reaches everyone, including Mr. Pakaluk’s son. Mr. Pakaluk’s article will only serve to affirm the homophobic and heterosexist views of people like him. Others, gay and straight, Catholic and non-Catholic, who have had the simple human wisdom to enlighten themselves by taking advantage of the wealth of scientific material on these issues that is freely available, will see Mr. Pakaluk’s article for what it is.

As for the editors of The Pilot, shame on you for allowing the benighted and uncharitable views of “Professor” Pakaluk—God help the young people who are being “educated” by this man—to be published in a newspaper that professes to be Catholic and thus reflective of the sole commandment of Jesus to all of us through his apostles: “Love one another as I have loved you.” If this article has anything to do with Christ’s love, then I humbly confess that I do not know what love is.

If Mr. Pakaluk’s article reflects the Roman Catholic version of truth and morality, I tearfully declare that I am ashamed to be Catholic. If Mr. Pakaluk’s views on homosexuality—that it is a lifestyle, that it is a sexual disorder, that it is inherently eroticized and pornographic—are what he is teaching his son as truth and morality, his teaching is the very antithesis of these values and may God help his son seek the truth on his own.

I thank God for the courageous people, gay and straight, who have in the last 40 years removed—even if not yet fully—the shroud of ignorance, humiliation, and fear that kept LGBT people from taking their rightful place as full members of society and from being who they really are. How sad it is that the Catholic Church, which should be the shining beacon of love toward which all people are drawn, struggles so desperately to replace the shroud.

I sincerely hope that Mr. Pakaluk’s son does not turn out to be gay. What loving child of God would want this boy to experience the “lifestyle” of confusion, self-loathing, and loneliness that so many gay young people are forced to endure because of the ignorance of their parents and of their Church?

The editor of The Pilot, Mr. Antonio Enrique, has issued a statement, apparently in response to the general outrage Mr. Pakaluk’s article has sparked. In it he says, “Pilot readers are accustomed to reading differing views on many complex social issues. Our Catholic laity is well educated and can make up their minds on whether they agree or disagree with a particular opinion.” One can only wonder if the “differing views” have been presented in The Pilot and if the paper has contributed to what Mr. Enrique considers “well educated.”

Mr. Enrique also states that The Pilot is “a vehicle to promote conversation and better understanding of the different positions on issues of interest to Catholics within the bounds of the teachings of the Catholic Church.” From this statement it would appear to me that such conversation would be pretty one-sided and therefore, by definition no conversation at all.

I challenge Mr. Enrique and The Pilot to promote a conversation in its fullest meaning and a full understanding of the different positions on issues of interest to Catholics by publishing an opinion piece that reflects a view of homosexuality—held my many Catholics in the United States and elsewhere—based on both the overwhelming body of scientific evidence and the real lives of millions of LGBT people throughout the world.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Looking for a New Church Community (or not)

It has been a month and half since I wrote to the pastor of my church advising him that due to the unrepentant homophobia of the archdiocesan newspaper, a medium which represents the views of the archdiocese, I could no longer be an active member of the parish. I have never received a reply to that e-mail.

Since that time I have not attended any other church, but I have been feeling more and more that I need to find a new church community.

Prior to my departure from my own Catholic parish, I attended Mass a few times at the Old Catholic church located in my neighbourhood, and although I did not feel too comfortable with the liturgy there, I know I should go back and give it a chance. The Old Catholic Church is absolutely inclusive, and I was certainly warmly received by the clergy in the little church near my house.

I have also been looking at the Anglican Church—the Anglican Church of Canada, not the ANIC as described in an earlier post. There is St. James, which is located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a district notorious for its drug dealers and users, prostitutes and derelicts, and for its occasional violence. From what little can be seen on its web site, the church itself appears to be gorgeous. One of the big draws for me is that St. James is both High Anglican and inclusive. High Anglican means that liturgically it is close to Roman Catholicism. Inclusive means that until recently the assistant priest at St. James was an openly gay young man from Hong Kong. The priest was recently made rector of a parish in a seaside community near Vancouver, where he and his partner were warmly welcomed by the parishioners. St. James is twenty-minute bus ride from my home.

There are other Anglican churches I could attend, including Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver, which, like St. James, has Mass every day, and gay-friendly St. Paul’s in Vancouver’s West End. Attending Mass or Holy Communion at these churches would entail a longer bus trip.

So why haven’t I got myself dressed up and onto the bus and made my way to St. James? For sure, it is partly just laziness. The Catholic church I formerly attended was a ten-minute walk from home or a two-minute drive with easy parking around the church. The larger reason is more complicated. I miss my church—my Catholic church. Despite my beefs with the hierarchy and my cafeteria-style faith, the peace and comfort that I felt in church when I returned four years ago never left me. I could not recapture those feelings in the Old Catholic Church and I guess that I am afraid they won’t be there for me in the Anglican Church either.

There are many in the Catholic blogosphere who are unhappy with the Roman Catholic Church because of the outrageous and un-Christ-like actions of members of the ecclesial hierarchy and the intransigent stance of the Church on issues that affect so many of its members. Yet these thoughtful people seem to be unable to leave the Church and join another denomination, regardless of how inclusive the alternative community might be.

I think again of the character of Father David Telemond in The Shoes of the Fisherman, whose words of frustration about the Church I have quoted before: “I hate her! And still I can’t leave her. I love her, and still I cannot live in her in peace.”

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Generous Orthodoxy

From Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian:

A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn't take itself too seriously. It is humble; it doesn't claim too much; it admits it walks with a limp. It doesn't consider orthodoxy the exclusive domain of prose scholars (theologians) alone but, like Chesterton, welcomes the poets, the mystics, and even those who choose to say very little or to remain silent, including the disillusioned and the doubters. Their silence speaks eloquently of the majesty of God that goes beyond all human articulation. And it welcomes the activists, the humanitarians, the brave and courageous and compassionate, because their actions speak volumes about God that could never be captured in a text, a sermon, an outline, or even a poem.

From Chapter 9, "Why I am a Mystical/Poetic"

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bible tells me so. Oh, really?

In his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren states that “for a new kind of Christianity to emerge, we need a new approach to the Bible.” He claims that most Christians treat the Bible as a kind of constitution; in other words, it is a set of immutable laws that Christians are expected to live by. At the core of this constitutional metaphor is the idea of authority—not so much the authority of the Bible itself but “the authority of the people interpreting the Bible.” McLaren cites a pre-Civil War novel as an extreme example of where this exploitation of the Bible-as-constitution metaphor can border on the extreme.

Nellie Norton was a novel to celebrate the greatness of slavery, and the subtitle was basically something like this: “How the Bible is a pro-slavery Bible and God is a pro-slavery God." Now, that turns your stomach to hear that now but we haven’t had any scrutiny about the way we read the Bible. We’re still using it the same way.

We are indeed still using the Bible the same way. In fact, many claim today that the Bible is an anti-gay Bible and God is an anti-gay God.

For the Bible Tells Me So is a wonderful documentary that came out a few years ago and made the rounds of the film festivals; I’m not sure whether it ever found its way into general release. The film is about Christian parents with gay children.

The documentary looks at five families, including Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church, and his parents, and former U.S. presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and his wife and their lesbian daughter Chrissy. In the film we learn of the struggle of the parents to come to terms, in the context of their own religious upbringing and beliefs, with the sexual orientation of their children and with their own prejudices and their fears for their children’s safety and well-being. The film also examines the fears and misgivings faced by gay and lesbian children in religious families as they hear the condemnations of homosexuality in their churches and as they consider coming out to their parents.

The Bible is a major character in this documentary as it is quoted by pastors and laypeople alike in order to condemn homosexuality and homosexuals. There are numerous clips of preachers railing against homosexuality; the most common word that is used against it is “abomination.” One preacher, Jimmy Swaggart, says to his congregation: “I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. If one ever looks at me like that, I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.” He goes on to say—with no awareness of the irony of his statement—that “God calls homosexuality an abomination. It’s an abomination! It’s an abomination!”

A parent of a lesbian daughter and husband of a Christian minister says, “I’ve learned enough about the Bible now to understand God. I understand how God works, how Jesus works.” A little later, when talking about his two children, he has this to say: “When my kids were growing up, I said, ‘God, please don’t let my son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut’. And he did not…he did not do that. He reversed it (laughs).”

Gene Robinson, who was a model Christian boy in his childhood church, says, “From ten to eleven on Sunday morning everyone was in Sunday school class, [which] was always and only focused on the Bible. So we were absolutely steeped in scripture.” From the seventh grade, Robinson knew that he was different from the other boys his age and he immediately realized that he must keep this difference to himself. “I was always familiar with what the Bible said: Anyone who is thought to be ‘that way’ was an abomination before God.”

All of the stories in For the Bible Tells Me So are compelling. The senior Robinsons, southerners and members their whole lives (they are in their late seventies when the film is shot) of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, deeply and unconditionally love their son. The Gephardts are willing to forego Richard’s quest for the presidency if their daughter feels the campaign—and Gephardt believes her being a lesbian will be an issue—is in any way going to be painful for her.

For me, the most powerful story in the film is that of Mary Lou Wallner and her daughter Anna. Mary Lou was raised in a family of fundamentalist believers and attended “a conservative, Bible-believing church” every Sunday of her childhood and her adult life. In her Christian community, “everything in the Bible was taken literally and there were rules about everything.”

The church that Mary Lou was attending taught that homosexuality was a sin—and not just a sin but the sin of all sins. “I didn’t really study the Bible at all about [homosexuality], but I did pull out those passages and read them and certainly used them against Anna, later.”

When she was away at college, Anna wrote to her mother and told her that she was gay. Mary Lou reacted to this news by first going to the bathroom and throwing up and “then just going completely underground, not telling anybody and being ashamed and embarrassed.” She wrote her daughter back and told her “some things…that were not very loving.”
Undoubtedly the most difficult part of your letter is the gay thing. I will never accept that in you. I feel it’s a terrible waste, besides being spiritually and morally wrong. For a reason I don’t quite fathom I have a harder time dealing with that issue than almost anything in the world. I do and will continue to love you, but I will always hate that.

She thought her daughter’s sexuality was a choice and that “she needed to just get her act together and stop this.”

The letter caused an irreparable break between daughter and mother. Ten months later, before there could be any reconciliation, Mary Lou’s daughter took her own life by hanging herself from the bar in her bedroom closet.

The death of her daughter led Mary Lou to question what she had been taught by her church—that being gay was a choice, for example—and to begin to research the subject of homosexuality for herself. What she learned was this: “…instead of taking the Bible literally, I have to take it in the context and culture of the day in which it was written.” She has since become an activist for the advancement of gay rights and for the understanding of gay and lesbian people by the church.

Jorge Valencia of the Trevor Project Suicide Hotline says:
It’s estimated that every five hours an LGBT teen takes his life, and for every teen that takes his or her own life, there are twenty more who try. One of the top five reasons why teenagers call us is for religious reasons. They’re feeling there isn’t a place for them and God.

Reverend Jimmy Creech of Faith in America says:
The church, because of its teachings that homosexuality is sinful, is wrong, is a perversion, has created the climate in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered children growing up feel very much in conflict with the world in which they live. It really shapes their thinking so that they hate themselves, so that they internalize this judgment and condemnation.

In The Bible Tells Me So, a number of clergy members, including biblical scholars like Reverend Peter J. Gomes of Harvard Divinity School, stress the wisdom and importance of reading the Bible in the context of the period and culture in which it was written. They point out, for example, that the famous prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus—“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall be put to death. Their blood is upon them”—does not exist in isolation from other abominations: eating shrimp, planting two different seeds in the same hole, comingling crops, eating a rabbit, and so on.

Moreover, biblical scholarship has determined that in the Hebrew Bible the word abomination “is always used to address a ritual wrong. It never is used to refer to something innately immoral. Eating pork was not innately immoral for a Jew, but it was an abomination because it was a violation of a ritual requirement.”

It is not a stretch to say that selective reading of the Bible, as a constitution, led to the tragic death of Mary Lou Wallner’s daughter and has led to the deaths of many other young people. It has also resulted in closeted lives of fear, self-loathing, and confusion for countless numbers of LGBT teenagers who do not take their own lives. In this age of information, where the truth of both scripture and homosexuality are readily available, the choice of pastors and laypersons to not only remain ignorant but to preach in ignorance is, in the sense of the word as they so like to use it, an abomination.

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren suggests an alternative metaphor for the Bible; his suggestion is that we think of the Bible as a library, which is “a collection of documents.” His rationale for the use of this metaphor is that “in a good library you want to present all sides of an issue. A good library preserves key arguments; a good constitution eliminates all arguments.”

A library is a sacred place of ideas. For every argument you find there, you will find a counter-argument, made with the same intelligence, with the same love for truth as the first. This interplay of ideas promotes growth—spiritual, intellectual, and emotional. If we can see the Bible as a library rather than as a constitution, Christian churches and Christian families might begin to have respectful and loving conversations that include the LGBT members of those churches and those families and that allow them to be who they are.

If you have not seen The Bible Tells Me So, I highly recommend it. You can watch it on YouTube in nine parts. Here is the first: