Reformation

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Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.

 

An Invitation

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I had an invitation last week to spend time with a very old friend. The timing wasn’t the greatest. I had two finals to finish – one in philosophy and one in comparative theology – both writing intensive. The kids have stuff going on as their school year is winding down. One is testing for his learner’s permit this week and his summer job has started. The usual to-do list and urgent errands have been amplified the last few weeks with lots of extra time being Mom Taxi. So even finding time to get out of the house alone wasn’t going to be easy. But I just knew I couldn’t say no. Thursday evening, instead of taking advantage of the a few hours of free time to work on my finals, I went to Our Lady of Peace and spent that time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

That sounds all peaceful and lovely, doesn’t it? It was. Except for the part when my brain went into overdrive. This is a crazy thing to do. I have so much to do. And I haven’t been to adoration in years. Besides, this is such a totally Catholic thing to do. And I’m… I’m… well I don’t know what I am. A has-been Catholic? A would-be Lutheran? A hell-bound heretic? Why did I decide to do this? I wonder if the lightning strike will take out the whole church or just me…

Yeah, it got a little intense there for the first few minutes. But, here’s the funny thing: Jesus and I have already had this conversation, on more than one occasion, and he has no use for all those nice neat boxes that I spend so much time trying to fit myself into or fight my way out of. Jesus knew I needed a reality check and during that time I spent sitting there in the quiet, candlelit church, he gave me one. The only thing that mattered in that time and space was that I had showed up to spend time with him.

I was invited: Come. Be Still.

So I came. And I was still – or as still as I get. And that was still enough to be reminded that Jesus sees me with different eyes and when I can be still, or at least somewhat still-ish, I can catch glimpses of what he sees. And when that happens, my life doesn’t look quite so crazy.

 

 

Perennial Hope

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I had the opportunity this past week to attend a lecture given by Dr. Phyllis Zagano. In fact, it was her last public appearance before leaving for Rome in November to serve on the papal commission convened to examine, yet again, the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. She will not speak publicly again until the commission’s work is concluded.

Dr. Zagano spoke in great detail about the history of women in the diaconate. This has been her passion and her life’s work and, as she quipped, every word is not only researched but footnoted. She spoke of rights, of justice, and of mercy. She stressed repeatedly that no one, male or female, has the right to be ordained. Thus, ordaining women to the diaconate is not about a woman’s right to be ordained. There is no such thing. Rather it is about the right of the community to be ministered to by women who have been called to serve.

In addition to preaching, baptizing and officiating at weddings, women ordained to the diaconate would be able to serve in offices reserved for those in the clerical state. It is the right of parishes, dioceses, and the entire Church to be ministered to by women in these ways, women who bring with them the unique gifts and perspectives of womanhood. This isn’t just about positions in the Curia, but also about looking much closer to home where it could mean women serving as an canonical judges. Under the new guidelines for annulments, a single judge may issue a decision without the need for a second trial. While women currently serve on tribunals as canon lawyers and judges, their work is overseen by ordained men and cases overseen by a single judge must be decided by clerics. Ordained women would be able to fill this role.

She spoke of justice in the Church and how that carries out into the world. One of the arguments that has long been championed as the central reason for the all-male clergy is the maleness of Jesus. This flawed line of reasoning holds that women don’t match Christ’s image. This carries an implication that women, simply based on their gender, cannot image Christ or do so in away that is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ. That is an injustice and one that radiates out into the world. Indeed, the long history of the subjugation of women is based entirely on the view of women as being less than a man. The Church has the opportunity and the responsibility to correct that worldview.

Finally, she spoke of mercy and the role of the Church to recognize and touch the suffering within the community. Women within their communities are often willing and able to be ministers of mercy but are limited by the roles they are currently permitted to hold. Whether that means a woman serving as a deacon in Latin America, traveling to the remote villages where the priest can rarely visit or a woman serving as a deacon in a suburban parish down the street, preaching the gospel and touching the lives of those around her in service and charity.

Ultimately, there is a wealth of historical evidence, including rites of ordination, that women served as deacons. The topic of reviving this role for women was raised at the Second Vatican Council and at the close of the council, it was slated as a topic that warranted further study but was largely neglected. In 1997, a commission studied all of the evidence and created a detailed report which concluded that yes, women could be ordained to the diaconate. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time served as President of the International Theological Commission, refused to sign it. In 2002, a new commission was convened to study the same question. It subsumed the entire 1997 report into its own 78-page report, which concluded that there was no conclusion. Dr. Zagano summed up the discussions of the last 50 years in one succinct statement: They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.

They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes. 

 

Now, Pope Francis has handpicked a new commission made up of twelve highly respected scholars. There are six men and six women. Dr. Zagano said she has no idea what the outcome will be. And she refused to entertain questions on women serving in the priesthood. She did, however, state that Benedict XVI defined the diaconate as a ministry entirely separate from the presbyteriate and the episcopacy.  In simple English, ordaining women to the diaconate poses no theological challenge to maintaining an all-male priesthood. There are some who argue that the diaconate, presbyteriate, and episcopacy are inextricably entwined.  If that were ever determined to be an inviolable theological truth, then women would have to be ordained to the priesthood based in the historical evidence of women serving in the diaconate for many centuries in the early Church. But that is not the role of the current commission to determine nor to consider. Their role is solely to determine whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. Dr. Zagano plainly stated that all of her work leads to a clear yes, they can. They were in the past and should be again.

The sheer volume of historical evidence she traced out for us was nearly overwhelming. And for me, just being in that space, surrounded mostly by women of a certain age, women who really know how far we have come, was an amazing experience in and of itself. There was an air of excitement and hope, not optimism or wishful thinking but a true, deeply held, rarely displayed, soul level hope. It was the kind of perennial hope only progressives, and maybe lifelong Cubs fans, would truly understand. Maybe this is our time. The Cubs finally had their year. Will we?

The Deaconess Reality Check

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Earlier this week, Pope Francis answered questions at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, a gathering of 900 women religious leaders. He was asked about the ordination of women as deacons. His response was that he would call for a commission to study of the historical role of deaconesses and whether women could be ordained to this role today. This is a far cry from the usual resounding NO GIRLS ALLOWED response that is the stock answer whenever the words ordain and women appear in the same sentence and that fact alone was enough to send the internet into a frenzy. Supporters of women’s ordination cheered the idea as a baby step forward. I was tagged in multiple posts and comments on social media. Did you see this? This is awesome! Finally!

But I’m not super excited about the statement for a number of reasons. First of all, this was one of the pope’s infamous off-the-cuff remarks, which is Vatican slang for doesn’t mean a darn thing.  Secondly, if one read below the fold, the pope was also asked about a woman delivering the homily at Mass. The response was the customary NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Finally, the Church has been committed to ‘studying’ the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate since the Second Vatican Council, a.k.a before I was born. Leading Church historians and theologians have used the exact same evidence to argue completely opposite positions.

Historically speaking, yes women served as deaconesses in the early Church. There is not only reference to this in scripture but also in records of early Church councils where there is discussion about the rite of the ordination of women deaconesses, specifically the Council of Chalcedon in 451. What has been refined and passed down to us is that deaconesses assisted with the baptisms of other women during a time when full immersion baptism would have required baptismal candidates to be naked. Scriptural references, however, speak of women preaching in the synagogues alongside the men. So what happened? The question centers around whether these women were merely given a blessing or whether there was an imposition of hands as there is in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was eventually ‘clarified’ and the role of women was eliminated altogether. That clarification came at a later Church council, later being defined as 1000 years later so hardly eyewitness apostolic kind of stuff. Be that as it may, the silt of centuries of Church teaching builds upon earlier layers of deposit and, right or wrong, it becomes solidified as tradition.

Could the Vatican reinstate the order of deaconess?  Yes, absolutely. The foundation is there both in scripture and in tradition. More and more highly placed archbishops and cardinals are starting to raise that possibility. While this generates a lot of excitement for supporters of women’s ordination, the reality is that a women’s diaconate would likely look nothing at all like the men’s diaconate we have now. Our deacons can proclaim the gospel and preach the homily at Mass. Pope Francis clearly restated the Church’s position that while a woman may offer a reflection at a prayer gathering, at Mass the priest or deacon delivers the homily in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and thus must be a man. Sadly, this means that any hope that reinstating the order of deaconess will lead to us hearing a woman preach at Mass is decidedly misplaced. The only way that will happen is if, and only if, the Church revises its definition of what it means to operate in persona Christi and, since such a revision would also open the way for women to be ordained not only to the diaconate (as we now know it) but also to the priesthood, it is highly unlikely to occur in my lifetime.

Do I hope the Church might take a step, any step, even a tiny one, toward ordaining women? Yes, very much so. But hope has to be tempered with reality. The reality is that the Church would have to reexamine more than a millenia and a half of teaching before a woman could ever be allowed to preach at Mass. While the world looks at progressive changes in terms of years, the Catholic Church looks at progressive changes in terms of centuries. Change may come, but at 43, how long am I willing to wait for it? I’ve been told that younger women in the Catholic Church need women like me, women with passion, education, and most importantly a big mouth, to stay in the Catholic Church and push for change. But sometimes the only way to effectively create a change is to create a vacuum.

Accountability

Some recent comments from a Catholic archbishop in Spain made a bit of a splash earlier this week on the internet when he spoke in his homily about domestic violence and how women draw a macho reaction by rejecting their partner’s demands or by asking for a separation. You can read the story here or here.

In these modern times, when more attention than ever has been focused on women and their roles in society, domestic violence has been hauled out into the light and exposed for the widespread, insidious evil that it is. We can read more than ever before about the various forms of abuse and its short- and long-term effects. Articles abound which detail the ways in which abuse is often perpetuated in other forms long after a woman exits a violent relationship. There is plentiful research, much of which has been translated into layman’s terms, that demonstrates that not all abuse is physical and psychological damage from abusive relationships can last for years.

So that brings me back to church. As one who is actively dating other churches, I spend a serious amount time reading official statements and following various synod gatherings, especially from Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. Back in November, a document was issued from the ELCA which specifically addressed gender-based violence. It contained a confession of individual and corporate sin in which the church admits to failing in the past to address such violence and for its role in not doing enough to counter bad theology which allowed for a misinterpretation of scripture in such a way as to promote patriarchal systems based on the view that women are ‘lower’ than men in creation. It went on to address the practicality which every congregation is likely to face at some point: having a woman and her abuser both as members of the congregation. In this situation, it was stressed that the safety of the victim is to be the greatest concern. Abusers, while they must be cared for, must also be held accountable not only to the victim but also to the community of faith. Congregations are strongly encouraged to have specific guidelines and plans of action to cope with such situations.

As a domestic violence survivor, I read it with great interest when it was issued but I didn’t do much of a real comparison with Catholic statements at the time. The comments this week from the Catholic archbishop touched a very raw nerve and so I decided to dig a little deeper. As I had written on this blog previously, the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome did not have much to say about domestic violence except as it explicitly related to women’s role as mother. As I scoured the internet now, I did manage to find a relatively new document from the U.S. Catholic bishops on domestic violence that was long on scripture and short on any real practical guidance. Accountability is mentioned only once as a bullet point with no specifics whatsoever.

When a woman finds herself under attack at home and seeks the help of the Church, the clergy especially have a responsibility to not only refer her to specialized counseling services but also to ensure that she has a safe haven within the community. Abusers can, and should, also be referred to specialized counseling but they must also be held accountable for their actions.

This leads me to ask the questions of my Catholic brothers: what does real Christian accountability look like? When do we need to move beyond pastoral care to exercise the pastoral authority we claim to have been given through apostolic succession?

Perhaps it means the messy work of assisting an abuser in transitioning to a new parish away from their victim.  Perhaps it means putting safeguards in place that allow a victim new to a parish to ensure that their abuser does not follow them. But for as long as accountability remains an undefined bullet point, victims will continue to suffer needlessly and for this the Catholic Church is accountable.
ELCA Foundational Document & Related Social Message

USCCB Statement When I Call For Help

Life Reclaimed

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The first time I sat down with my therapist, about a week before I filed for a divorce, he asked me what I wanted. I wanted to build a new life for myself and my boys, away from the abuse, the constant anxiety, and the fear that we had lived with for so long. What that looked like, I didn’t know yet. So many people seemed to think that once the ink dried on the divorce agreement, life would magically start over fresh and new, full of promise and hope. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I could meet someone new and do anything I wanted now, I could pay my way through school clear through to a doctorate.

That whole ‘clean slate’ thing? Hate to tell you this but it’s a myth. There is no clean slate; just a huge pile of junk from my imploded life. Some of it was useful and some wasn’t. Some of it needed to be repaired while some was too damaged to be salvaged. An awful lot of it was obliterated and pulverized into a thick dust that covered everything else. It has taken a number of years for that dust to settle and to be able to pick out what is salvageable.

Going back to college and working on rebuilding the outside aspects of my life may appear to be such a huge step. Actually, that has been the easiest thing I’ve ever done but I couldn’t do it until I knew what it was to feel safe in my own skin. It’s the inside stuff that has been brutally hard and only a few people have any real understanding of exactly how hard. That work is still ongoing and probably will be for quite some time. It took time to reestablish my own interior space and to learn who to let in, who to keep out, and most importantly that it is necessary to cut ties with toxic people and places.

My dating church adventures have been part of that cutting of ties. Learning to accept that it’s okay to sort through this pile of stuff that was handed to me as part of the religion I was raised with has been pretty much the same process as going through the divorce. It is a process that been further complicated by the fact that I am still bound by my promises to raise my boys as Catholic. My old parish was no longer a healthy place to be and bringing them to the Lutheran church is not an option as my questions are not their questions.

These last few weeks, as we’ve settled into a new Catholic parish, I’ve found a great deal of peace. I can continue to raise my boys in the faith away from the drama and toxicity I’d tolerated for too long. I met with the pastor there this past week and explained the back story of our exodus from the old parish. I was assured that this will be a safe place that will wrap around me and the boys. When I mentioned my issues with the Catholic Church and my Lutheran leanings, I was met with a shrug. “Eh, my best friend is a Lutheran. I figure God knows what He’s doing. Jesus told us in John 10:16 ‘I have other sheep not in this fold…they will all become one flock.’  So it’s all good and know that my door is always open for you.”

After I left his office, I did a little reading on the parish itself. (Confession: I’m a shameless history geek and the history of churches is especially interesting to me.) The church I have settled into was built with bricks reclaimed from the demolition of a slum. Those very bricks around me have their own history of a life imploded and rebuilt into something greater and more beautiful. What better place could there be for starting to build something new?

God of Partial Credit

Determine the validity of the argument. NO PARTIAL CREDIT

Determine the validity of the argument. NO PARTIAL CREDIT

I knew I was screwed the night my professor drew five symbols on the board and said, “Don’t worry. This is easy. It’s like algebra but with arguments instead of numbers. And we get rid of all those useless things like words.”

  1. I barely passed algebra.
  2. Words are the air I breathe.
  3. How in the hell do you determine the validity of arguments without the words?

I might not have been quite so freaked out if I only needed to pass this class. But passing isn’t good enough. I need to ace this class so that I can respectfully (translation: with gritted teeth) ask that my first semester grades from 1991 be waived so that I can be taken off academic probation now in 2015. Had I known that my dean’s list level performance last semester wasn’t going to be good enough, I never would have taken The Art of Thinking this semester. All I’d heard were horror stories about how difficult this class is, both from students and from my advisor.

My first two tests grades were decent but not stellar. I had one writing assignment which bolstered my grade but there is no wiggle room. So when the third test rolled around, I was more than a little anxious. I studied as best I could for a test that consisted of letters, squiggles, dots, sideways horseshoes, wedges, and horizontal lines laid out in braces, brackets, and parentheses and called an “argument”.  Honestly, I know what an argument looks like.  I have them all the time. Follow me on Twitter and you’ll see. None of them look like this!

I did the best I could. I was confident on some of the basics but towards the end of the test, my brain was fried. My professor had drilled into our heads that it only takes one error to render an entire truth table incorrect. The words NO PARTIAL CREDIT glared back at me from the page. I laid out the lines one by one, adding true or false under each letter in every possible combination and working through the symbols to determine what was true, what was false, and finally, whether the entire mess was valid or invalid. Then I handed it over and waited for three long weeks to find out how erroneous my tables would turn out to be.

Three weeks can be a really long time. I saw truth tables in my dreams. I woke up mumbling, “If this is true, then this is true and this is false, so this is true but this is false…NO PARTIAL CREDIT!”

Meanwhile, off campus, life went on. After Easter, my dating church adventures included scoping out a new Catholic parish. After thirty years in a parish that was about close to Protestant as one could get and still be Roman Catholic, I spent a few Sundays in a church that took me back to traditional Catholic practices from my childhood. There was something deeply nostalgic and comforting there. Nostalgia isn’t going to bring me back to the Catholic Church, but it might be enough to anchor one side of the bridge I find myself on. One of the hardest things of dating churches is not judging one against another. Each space I enter has something to teach me, and just maybe something for me to teach them. It would be so easy right now to give up dating churches and let myself completely relax into the Lutheran community I’ve found. But that would be like accepting a marriage proposal from someone I’ve known for only a few months. I remember all too well that I did that once and it didn’t turn out so well.

I’ve realized now more than ever that, when it comes to religion, for most of my life I’d accepted only a single line of what is actually an entire table of truth. I accepted that A was true and B was false without bothering to figure out what that meant for the unknowns of G and F.  Add to that, I’d gone through life with a God of NO PARTIAL CREDIT. Get one thing wrong and EVERYTHING YOU’VE DONE IS INVALID. That’s an awful way to go through life, especially when I know I’ve gotten more than one thing wrong along the way. The last couple of years have been a matter of figuring not only what is true and what is false but what is unknown and even unknowable, what is of God and what is of man. I reached a point where the single line I had based my faith on no longer served as a solid foundation. I need an entire truth table, letter for letter, symbol for symbol, with every combination of true and falsity. That simply is not possible. There are too many unknowns to ever have that level of certainty. All I can do is work with what I know is true and build from there. Two things I know for certain: God loves me. God is infinitely, mercifully patient with me. Which logically leads me to believe that God is indeed a God of Partial Credit.

After three long weeks, I finally got my test grade. I cringed as I unfolded it. My grade? 100. NO PARTIAL CREDIT. Fully earned, in spite of my doubts. When I shared my news on Facebook, my friend congratulated me and then told me, “Next time, don’t doubt yourself.”