Reformation

sparrow

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

Adoration5

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.

 

 

Unicorn Convention

gettysburgAt the beginning of Lent, I found myself reading through my past Lenten journeys and trying to get some sense of where this year was headed. Nothing really solidified for me and I sat down the day after Ash Wednesday and wrote Jesus a letter. While most of that is between me and him, I can tell you I wrote this: Show me a way to get closer. I’m not good at trusting but I’m learning. Help me get closer. Teach me a new way to trust. Then I closed the notebook and purposely left it alone until Palm Sunday.

They say never pray for patience or you will be given opportunities to be patient. Well, trust me on this one, asking for a new way to trust works pretty much the same way. I discovered that on Thursday as I drove from my home in Connecticut to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. What should have been a five-hour drive turned into more than eight hours of driving in the rain with limited visibility through the Pennsylvania mountains while being surrounded by more trucks than I have ever seen on any road trip ever. To add to the fun, I couldn’t take the route I had planned to take because the bridge I needed to cross has been closed indefinitely. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for my life in there somewhere but that’s another post entirely. I prayed all the way for the rain to stop. And it did. Right when I crossed the town line into Gettysburg. God has such a sense of humor.

I was there to spend the weekend talking about church and God and life. It is something of a running joke on the Sacred Heart campus that being a religion major is quite a bit like being a unicorn – a rare mythical creature that most people have heard about but no one has ever actually seen one. I spent this past weekend in the company of unicorns. It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by people with similar passions and questions. As one person put it, “For every question I find an answer to, thirty more questions come up.” And every head in the room was nodding in understanding and agreement. Conversations over breakfast started with things like, “So who’s your favorite theologian?” or “Have you ever read…” There were more formal discussions and small group gatherings. There was time to gather in prayer with my fellow unicorns.

While I kept my usual journal the entire weekend, on Sunday morning I opened the notebook I bring with me on retreats and reread that letter I’d written at the start of Lent and laughed. Okay, really Lord, there had to be a better way to teach me to trust than eight hours of hellacious driving conditions. But then, before us unicorns gathered for the last time, I spent some time alone in the quiet prayer space. I realized that for the first time I can remember I was openly standing still with God. I wasn’t running away from God. I wasn’t chasing after God. I was standing still in God’s presence and had been the entire weekend. And as if that wasn’t huge enough, I wasn’t hiding anything. And as if all of that wasn’t shocking enough, I realized I had done the same thing the entire weekend with people I didn’t even know. Me, the quiet introvert, who loves the back left corner of any classroom, was openly engaged in deeply personal conversations with more than forty people I had never laid eyes on before in a place I had never been to. And I had never felt more at home – physically in that space, emotionally in my own skin, and spiritually at home with God. And none of those things freaked me out. All the way home, on a lovely sunny, almost truck-free Sunday, the realizations kept coming. For every one thing I came to understand led to thirty more.

So there’s a lesson here. Be careful what you pray for. Because God answers prayers and God has a sense of humor.

Find Your Voice

speak-out-dont-be-silent

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. ELCA’s presiding bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, released a video calling on people find their voice and to use their voice to make a difference. She pointed congregants and pastors alike to the ELCA Social Message on Gender Based Violence, an open, honest and pragmatic seventeen page document intended to shape the way communities address these situations. I wish I could say the same about the Catholic bishops but here we are mid-month and I have yet to see any sort of statement from them. Although I did notice there was plenty to say about who was in and who was out when Pope Francis named the new cardinals. Now, don’t get me wrong. The US bishops do have a statement about domestic violence. It dates back to 2002 and it’s on their website, if you go looking for it.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” and his bragging about forcing himself on women just because he can. There’s been a lot of talk that Bill Clinton’s behavior was no better. There was Michelle Obama’s speech in New Hampshire where she talked about what it’s like to be woman in a world when some men feel like this behavior is acceptable. So clearly, everybody is talking about respecting women, demeaning women, what constitutes sexual assault, why consent matters and defining rape culture. And I have to wonder, with this topic of violence against women so high on the national radar, why is it that the my Catholic bishop is silent, despite having an active and engaging social media account and an existing church document to point to? And why is it that my Lutheran bishop has not only pointed to an existing church document but also taken the time to create a short video for social media specifically to highlight it? Is it simply because 49% of those ordained in the ELCA are women? And perhaps having women’s voices at all levels changes the way a church approaches ministry? Could it be that having an all-male clergy colors the way violence against women is perceived and dealt with in the Catholic Church? I want to say no. I really, really want to say no. But my experiences say otherwise.

So I throw out a question to my ordained Catholic brothers: when was the last time you preached about domestic violence? Really preached about it, not just some passing comment in a ten minute homily on the sanctity of marriage? When was the last time you preached about the dignity of women as human beings in their own right, married or not, and not just used a woman’s dignity as a launching point into a homily about abortion? When was the last time you held Jesus up as an example of treating women with decency and respect regardless of her social status? When was the last time you told the women in your congregation that they deserved a man who would treat them as Jesus would, with respect, kindness, gentleness and compassion? When was the last time you used the authority given to you by the Church to hold the men in your congregations accountable, calling for an end to off-color comments and boys-will-be-boys attitudes?

What are you waiting for? God knows we all need to hear it.

survivor-2

 

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.”