The Message We Send

What does the Church hold as more important: conformity or Eucharist?

If you think that sounds like a loaded question, you’re right. It is. But it is a question we need to be asking. Recently, a little girl in Indiana was denied her place at the Eucharistic table because she wanted to wear a suit rather than a dress for her First Communion. The parish insists that they issued a dress code requiring girls to wear dresses with long sleeves. But clearly the dress code wasn’t about modesty or being dressed appropriately because the suit she wore was both modest and appropriate for a First Communion. Her parents were told that either she wore a dress or she would not be allowed to participate with her class. Instead, she would receive Communion after the Mass, privately with her family and the deacon and there would be no pictures. Intended or not, the message sent to that little girl told her:

There is something wrong with you.

You don’t belong here.

You aren’t good enough.

If you want to be part of the Church, conform.

The message also sent to her classmates and their families was that there was something wrong with her desire to be herself because that self didn’t fit a particular image the Church wanted to create. Because she did not fit that image, she should be hidden away. Because she did not fit that image, shaming and excluding her was acceptable.

Her family ultimately opted to find another Catholic school and another Catholic parish rather than force the tearful, confused child to wear a dress just to fit in. What should have been a joyful celebration instead became a traumatic experience that caused deep and unnecessary emotional and spiritual wounds.

authenticI don’t want to debate dress codes or gender roles or images of femininity and masculinity.  I don’t care. I don’t care if she prefers suits and ties to dresses and frills.  I don’t care how short or how long she wears her hair. I. Do. Not. Care.

I do care very much that a child was denied her place at the Lord’s Table and she was denied her place within the Body of Christ. This. Is. Wrong. There is no spin, no list of rules, no tradition, no hermeneutic that can ever justify keeping a child from Jesus and, worse, telling her that it’s her own fault for wanting to come to the Table as her most authentic self.

A 9 year-old does not have the spiritual maturity nor the theological wherewithal to differentiate between God and Church. Through the eyes and understanding of a child, the Church, the priests, the deacons, God, and Jesus are all rolled into one. Because of this, the Church must be very conscious of the messages it sends to our children and the message the Church is sending to its girls and young women is emotionally and spiritually harmful.

Our girls are growing up being constantly told that their shorts are too short, their pants are too tight, their shirts are too low, their shoulders should not be bare, and their makeup should be more subtle, but also that dressing too much like a boy is wrong. Our girls are growing up knowing they are not permitted to be ordained. In some places, they are still growing up knowing they cannot serve on the altar. They are growing up with the message that somehow being a girl is shameful.  More concerning, our girls are growing up with the subtle message that even though Jesus loves you, he expects you to meet a certain standard in order to earn that love. They are getting the message that it is perfectly normal to have to surrender your authenticity, in part or as a whole, in order to be loved. If it is okay for Jesus to expect these things, it is only natural to expect the same in other relationships.

Then we wonder why our young women, who have been raised in the Church and have been taught since childhood about the all-encompassing love of God, are so easily drawn into unhealthy, unloving relationships. Parents and Church leaders will scratch their heads and wonder: Why do our young women try so hard fit in with society? Why are they so willing to give up their very identity for any person or group of people who merely say the things they want to hear?

I think what we really need to start asking ourselves is whether or not it could be because we’ve taught them to be fake. Could it be that the reason they work so hard to mold themselves to their group of friends is because they’ve been subtly taught from childhood that conformity is the path to love and acceptance? Could it be that the reason they tolerate disrespect in relationships is because a disconnect between hearing, “I love you” and actually being treated with love and respect seems normal to them?

Amazing, intelligent young women raised in loving, faithful families, are reaching young adulthood and selling themselves out. In part, they do this because they have been taught that to do so is not only normal, it’s expected. Until we start broadcasting and reinforcing the message that our girls are beloved daughters of God – full stop, no checklists – then the Church will continue to fail her daughters.

Claiming My Right To Life

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Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

Preamble

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …

Now, Therefore 

The General Assembly

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance both among the the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. …

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I no longer feel especially confident in my security of person or in my right to life. Why? Because the United States, a signing member of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has spent more time and energy going through the moral and political gymnastics to protect an antiquated and misused amendment to its own Constitution rather than to protect the lives of all of its citizens.

I do not feel secure being in public spaces because, all too often, those spaces have become a target for gun violence. Universities, movie theaters, concerts, nightclubs, churches, and even elementary schools have all seen innocent people gunned down for no other reason than they were out living their lives and happened to find themselves in the crosshairs. They had a right to life. They had a right to feel secure in their person. Their basic human rights were violated.

Now I know there are those who will say we shouldn’t talk about gun control in the wake of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. We should mourn the dead and help the wounded. It’s not the time or the place for politics. But how long do we mourn? How long before we can channel our grief into actions that prevent this kind of thing from happening ever again? Sandy Hook was nearly five years ago. Are we still mourning the slaughter of those little children and the adults who tried to protect them? Or do we stop mourning them so we can mourn Las Vegas? Do we compound the mourning and if so, then do we ever really stop mourning given the number of mass shootings in this country? Is there a body count threshold we need to meet before we should mourn as a nation? Let’s be completely honest, this latest mass murder is exceptionally newsworthy because of the sheer volume of dead and wounded. Would it have made headlines if only two or three people had been killed? Probably not. Maybe the local news would’ve talked about it for a night, two tops. Would it have mattered as much if only two or three died? Absolutely. One life lost to violence is one too many.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948 by the newly formed United Nations. The member nations were united in their avowal that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again. The Holocaust did not happen overnight but rather it began by the incremental, and gradually legalized, stripping away of the most fundamental rights to property, to security of person, and finally the right to life itself. The United Nations recognized the wisdom in protecting human rights from precisely this sort of incremental loss. When we no longer recognize the sanctity and dignity of all human life, our own human rights are in jeopardy.

Why has the right to bear arms become more important than the right to life? How many have to die on the altar of gun rights? At what point do we begin to demand that our basic universal God-given human right to life be honored over and above the right to own a gun capable of killing scores of people in a matter of minutes?

But wait, what about the right to bear arms? What about the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution?

Amendment II

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The Bill of Rights of the United States of America was written in 1791. These are amendments to the Constitution and are described therein as “proposed by Congress and ratified by the Legislatures of the Several States pursuant to the Fifth Article of the Original Constitution.” When the Founding Fathers included the right to bear arms in the Constitution, they could not have imagined the types of firearms that now exist. The United States was an agrarian society with vast stretches of wilderness that made owning firearms necessary for hunting and as a sensible form of protection, thereby providing security of person. What they did not envision was that a single person would have the ability to amass a cache of weapons and unleash hell on other innocent civilians gathered in a public space.

There are those who would argue that the United Nations Declaration is non-binding as the United States is a sovereign nation with its own laws, standards, and guarantees of rights. For those who would dismiss the United Nations, I need point only to the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

There, in the very founding document of our nation, is the declaration by the Founding Father that all of us has the God-given right to life. We also have the right to peaceably assemble. We have the right to attend schools. We have the right to worship in peace. All of these rights are human rights. These rights have been defined and declared in our own laws and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And every single one of these rights have been violated by those who invoke the right to bear arms.

So do we strip away the right to bear arms altogether? The right to protect self and property? The right to hunt or target shoot for sport? Not necessarily. But we do need to have a serious, soul-searching national conversation about whether the right to life should be held in higher regard than the right to bear arms. We need to have a serious, soul-searching national conversation about defining limits on the right to bear certain types of arms and perhaps by certain people in order to protect the rights of all people to live freely and with security of person.

Would gun control laws be a slippery slope to an incremental stripping away of fundamental rights? I don’t believe so. But what I do believe is that the lack of gun control laws is incrementally stripping away our fundamental right to security of person and our right to life.

Our right to life is God-given. Our right to bear arms is a human invention.

Which do we hold in higher regard?

Truth to Power

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In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

Walls: Inside and Out

storm waves

There are popovers in the oven right now. Because somehow the smell of rolls baking is comforting and, to be honest, a hot popover drowned in butter and a hot cup of tea are probably as close as I’ll get to communion today. Yesterday was a tough day. Last night was a long series of disjointed dreams and I woke up just as exhausted as I was when I went to bed. My prayer on opening my eyes this morning was, “You know what God, I am not in the mood the deal with you today.”

Despite that, I drove to the beach as I do every morning to spend an hour or more with God, although it was more out of habit than desire this morning. The remnants of Harvey had waves crashing over the seawall and the air was full of salt spray and misty rain. My boots happened to be in the car and a walk in the storm seemed more fitting than the idea of going to church because being surrounded by love and joy and music and people was way more than I could handle.

It has been something of a theme of 2017 that life is too short, too precious, and too fragile to be wasted on fakery of any sort. We always think we have time and the fact is, we never have as much as we think. Part of my foul mood this morning was that I resented feeling like I needed to get up, be presentable enough and pleasant enough to show up in church to be around people who don’t even really know me. That they don’t know me because I intentionally haven’t put down roots anywhere is a post for another day, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t up to the shallow pleasantries this morning and God knew that.

God knows this black mood of mine quite well. It happens that sometimes that life gets to be more than I can handle and I pretend like I’m completely fine when I’m really not. And that goes really well until I suddenly find myself feeling about as social and lovable as a pissed off hedgehog with a bad attitude. But every time I sink into this toxic sludge of a space, God meets me there. Today was no different. I walked until I ran out of beach, which given the tides and the storm waves, wasn’t much of a walk. But standing with my face in the wind and the waves crashing at my feet, I felt the power and grace of the Creator who is so much bigger than the storm that was raging inside. That was enough to drive the darkness back to tolerable levels of gray.

So as it turns out, it’s not that I don’t feel up to dealing with God today. I didn’t feel up to dealing with church this morning. And that distinction is one I need to get better at making. God was the only one who was going to understand the tangled mess of emotions I was feeling today because even I don’t know what I’m feeling. God knew that too. Maybe what I needed today was outside the church walls because what I needed, more than anything else, was to meet God inside my own walls, in the spaces where no one else is allowed.

A Woman Like Me

butterflyToday’s gospel is one that I have hated for years. I realize how horrible it sounds to say that about sacred scripture but, God knows, it’s the honest truth.

Most people hear Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ask them what this gospel passage is about and they’ll tell you Jesus saved her daughter from the demon. Yay! Go Jesus! Or they’ll tell you about the faith of the mother. Yay! Go Mom! Be persistent in your faith!

They don’t hear, or they deeply discount, the lines prior to it in which Jesus compares a woman, desperate for His help, to a dog. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for that. The two leading favorites are that He was trying to show those who with Him their own prejudices and/or that He was testing the mother’s faith.

A woman like me has learned the hard way that a man who will call you a dog, humiliate you in front of his friends, and essentially make you beg for what you need is not a man who loves you, nor is he to be trusted.

A woman like me. That’s a perfectly awful term to use. Like I’m a freak of nature or an alien creature. I am a domestic abuse survivor. I was brutalized by a man who stood at the altar and swore to love, honor and protect me. And then did the exact opposite.

The textbooks will tell you that repeated trauma rewires the brain, causing victims to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. In plain English, a woman like me sees and hears everyday things differently and I do it all the time because my brain is on constant alert for threats to my safety. I’m keenly aware of the distance, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, and any and all movements of those around me. So, yeah, when Jesus starts sounding like my ex-husband, I have a problem with it. A big, big problem with it. Trusting a guy who calls a woman a dog is the exact opposite of what my brain wants to do. Because I’ve been down that road and it gets damn ugly. But…

But long, long before I got married, I was schooled in the twin arts of sarcasm and gallows humor. One of the important lessons I learned early on is that not everyone will get the joke. As the saying goes, in that huge overlap between the things I find funny and the things that should not be joked about lie the reasons I’m going to hell. But there are those people with whom I have a good relationship, with whom that I know the banter back and forth is not insulting or harmful and with whom I can be pretty sarcastic. No harm. No foul.

My favorite client routinely answers the question ‘How are you?’ with a deadpan ‘Meh, I’m still this side of the grass, if that’s what you want to know.’ It goes without saying that we both know I really want to know if he’s doing okay and we both know he’s not seriously implying that I’m just checking to see that he’s not dead yet. There is an assumed level of safe relationship there.

What if the back and forth between Jesus and the Canaanite mother wasn’t as harsh as I hear it? What if there was an assumed level of safe relationship there also? Perhaps, instead of hearing this in abusive tones, I can learn to hear it in the sarcastic tones of safe relationship, one where both sides understand what goes without saying.

For a woman like me, that is a tough, but necessary, leap of faith. Because if I keep hearing this in abusive tones, I’m stuck trying to balance a Jesus I can’t trust with the Jesus I do and that will never, ever balance.

 

 

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.