Monday, December 14, 2009

Christians at Liberty

Almost two weeks ago, a friend who first came into my life almost three decades ago as a buddy-trainee in the early years of the local AIDS holocaust called me. She’s now a very successful psychologist, a cradle Anglican in exile from the Church but someone who takes her Christian practice very seriously and holds the local Church accountable, if now from a distance. Sadly she will also be leaving Montreal this Spring, to be with her daughter. She’d been trying to remember the source of something she remembered reading in the last couple of months. In the process of elimination I ended up suggesting the national and diocesan media of our Church, and offered to check the most recent issues of the diocesan paper if she, more technically accomplished did the same for the Anglican Journal.

In the end we never found what she was looking for, but in the process, I stumbled across a phrase which has repeatedly come to mind in the days since. Buried in the obituary of a man I never knew, who had served for many decades as a priest in our Church. Of a decided evangelical orientation, his wife mentioned he felt a particular calling to ‘Christians at liberty;’ individuals who, for one reason or another have left the Churches.

Christians at liberty

Strangely, the first resonances which same to mind were of my father’s stories of life in uniform during WWII. ‘at liberty’ there is after all just the faintest whiff of a British accent to the term, and Dad was a British air force instructor- that’s what brought him to Canada at the height of ‘hostilities.’

Christians at liberty

And I thought of one small paragraph in another recent post by a beloved sister, where she prays for and offers an apology to those ‘who have been smashed by the Church-‘ such a dramatic term necessary to cover the great scope of pain and harm our particular models of organized religion have inflicted over the centuries. I remember sitting in front of the screen, literally stopped in my tracks by the moral courage and faith of this dear priest.

Christians at liberty

Ed+ Hay’s book ‘Letter to Christians in Exile’ came to mind, and the great pains Ed goes to; the fine line he has to walk to minister to those who someone else once called ‘the prophetic exiles’ while maintaining his good standing in the Church of Rome.

Christians at liberty

Everything I read in his obituary led me to believe that Fred+ Dykes to be a very Bible centred priest who had not only served the Church- our Church, long and faithfully, but to be a man who knew his Gospel well.

Christians at liberty

Just what were they ‘at liberty’ from ?
And, perhaps most tellingly what does the term 'Christians at liberty' say about the rest of us, about our Church, the life and functioning of our Communion, if a well educated, faithful, long-serving priest could not only entertain this concept, but base years of generous ministry on this understanding?

Christians at liberty

And yes, this also brought to mind ‘E’ who is becoming increasingly dear to me. Since the events touched on in my earlier post, she’s been ‘swimming in the sea of critical Scriptural study’ to find ‘what’s left- so the Holy Spirit can make an adult Christian of me.’ She’s actually thinking of enrolling in theological studies when she gets home in a year.

‘What’s going to be really interesting, is this Christmas.... Going home to my Mum, and attending Church with the knowledge that so many of the details and images associated with the Christmas story are pagan in origin... What’s the Holy Spirit doing here?’

While ‘E’ is home in the mid-west she’s actually going to be checking out schools which might be able to accommodate her worklife.

Which I suppose brings me to last evening which aesthetically turned into one of Montreal’s magical snow and light shows as we came out of one of the big downtown churches following the CBC Christmas Carol Sing Along with a massed choir, brass ensemble, and a great organ.

‘I’ve got something I wanted to ask you’ my good and interesting friend ‘J’ told me as we’re shuffling out of the pews and down the aisle.

It took ‘J’ a while to cast her question, as we shuffled down the slow moving aisle into the fluffy snowfall. It had to do with new models ‘for being Church,’ and the three mediums for change she brought up were ‘liturgy, music and teaching,’ as far as I can remember.

I say as far as I can remember, because instinctively I interrupted with the suggestion that as long as we were building a model within the existing monolith of Church culture any change would be little more than surface and short-lived, and the dream of ‘transformation and renewal’ would remain a far off thing.

A little background: ‘J’ knows not only of the work I did in organizational transformation in a university culture, but of some of my work within AIDS. She knows how the work of people like Wheatly, Senge et al excite me- nowhere more so than for the exciting potential for Spirit led transformation and renewal under the three-legged stool of Anglican practice.

Making our way through traffic and snowfall, travelling on le metro, ‘J’ knew exactly what she was doing planting her question- she even offered to take me for dinner, but truth is I think best organizationally with pen in hand and page before me, and neither of us had come equipped.

By the time I’d made it home I had my first working title, and a sketch of several of what I’m calling ‘principles of search’.

Blessedly the creatures were waiting for me at time, and Willy ( the miraculous daschund) and I had a delightful walk in the flurries before the three of us settled down with a good cup of tea and a whole evening for the challenge ‘J’ had so casually placed in my lap.

Many hours later and a new day, there’s a new working title ‘A Church Unafraid’ and pages of notes. Surprisingly the evening also included two long distance conversations which have also fed into the process and pages of notes.

Where exactly this is going I’m not sure.

One thing I do know though, is that any vital manifestation of the living Body of Christ as a Church in the future is going to be a servant Church, and for this deep sense I am grateful to another cherished sister and vibrant priest.

‘Why are you even wasting your mind on the Church,’ one very dear longtime friend challenged late last evening on the phone. ‘You’re unemployed, no revenue coming in, the threat of losing your house-‘ I know both this dear friends heart and the decades we have walked together, but as I tried explaining last night, she’s never sat under the three legged stool- the Anglican vault of heaven I actually called it at one point, waxing lyrical perhaps. ‘And whatever else might be raining down, there’s always space under there- it’s wide open with a particularly Anglican possibility; biggest dance floor in the Universe, that and the Holy Spirit’s the most interesting dance partner on the floor..

So yes, there just might be something else out there I should be applying for. But ‘J’ and I are supposed to be speaking this morning, we might even manage coffee. She won’t be able to read my handwriting, but we’ll talk..... and possibly dream, of just what it would be like.... A Church Unafraid.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Perspective- just a thought

‘The most significant basis for the meeting of men of different religious traditions,’ wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatement, where our souls are swept away’ and the human spirit is ‘stripped of pretensions and conceit,’ It is then, Heschel concludes, that ‘we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.’ God, Heschel says with staggering simplicity, is greater than religion.

Practicing Catholic
James Carroll Pp 281

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pieces of the Whole

A telephone call yesterday- from a wonderful person whose faith is embodied most obviously in her work with battered and immigrant women in her city. Our first contact however many years ago, was through an international anti-nuclear initiative. This friend’s sense of compassionate justice is awesome, and paired with an unfailing ability to cut to the essential, it makes her a real force to be reckoned with - believe me! Usually our contact is by e-mail, so when she called yesterday I knew it had to be something serious. Uncharacteristically for her it took a while.

‘.... about your e-mail this morning, I’m finding myself with .... a certain....struggle to make this young man the central focus of my prayers for the next week. With so much suffering, so much injustice, so much inequity in the World.’ She fell silent.

We both were, until I asked a question.

‘When you’re out there in the middle of the night, rescuing one of your women who’s waiting on a street corner with the little she’s managed to grab before fleeing what she thought of as her home, where’s your focus?’

‘On her of course,’ she told me after a moment, surprised.

I waited hoping she’d make the connection herself.

‘And what about all the other battered women in the world at that moment, when you’re scooping her up & bringing her to your shelter?’

It took a while.

‘... At that moment she’s the only one I can do anything about....’

A little background:

Earlier that morning I’d sent out an e-mail to an incredibly diverse group of generous, caring individuals, each with a faith practice which in one way or another amazes me or gives me very real hope. I call them my ‘Giants’ and believe me from what I know of each one of them they are remarkable beings and truly living blessings.

I’d written about one of those living blessings. A remarkable Episcopal priest, who has become incredibly dear to me over the months and years we’ve each been bumping around on the internet. A no-shit lady who, with two feet planted firmly in a faith formed by her great love of God and of the liturgy and office of our Church, she is one of the most.... muscled Christians I know. And yup, you guessed it, our first contacts were because this priest, living in the ‘South,’ in a diocese where women priests are still a very small minority had very publically taken the cause of the full inclusion of LGBT lives within our Church as her own.

This same ‘priest’ (and yes I’m proudly flouting that word at the moment) and her beloved spouse, clergy himself, in the last months took into their home a gentle, sweet young man whose only offense was fleeing the violence of his upbringing and being caught as an illegal in the U.S. of A. In the next seven days, that young man, Juan, has to undergo two judical hearings which could see him seized, and thrown into jail until officials have filled a planeload with ‘illegals to be returned to Mexico.

‘What’s really going on here?’ I asked my friend on the phone.

Long silence.

‘Overwhelming at times isn’t it,’ I eventually offered; only stating the obvious.

‘How about overwhelming most of the time’ she eventually admitted with just the faintest hint of what could have been an ironic chuckle.

‘Are you saying.... I’m... depressed’ she eventually asked, pain and perhaps fear choking her voice.

‘Nope’ I teased her.

‘Nope?’ just the faintest hint of.... anger/frustration.

‘First off, we’re how many miles apart- physically? Secondly I wasn’t there for the last week, the last month of your very busy life.... What I am suggesting is that my e-mail came at a rather inopportune time and because of everything else you might have confused the lense for the picture.’

‘I need... a break... It’s been more than two months since I’ve even had a week-end at the country place.’

‘Sounds to me like you know what you need.’

‘Yeah, but-‘

‘Hey, there’s a professional staff at the shelter-‘

‘Whose hours we’ve had to cut back- yet again’


‘You’re right.... I’m just the president, I’ve got to let the whole organization-‘

I cut her off, eager to reassure her she’d done nothing wrong, as long as she’s got in touch with her own need, her own state of being before they became toxic for herself or her clients.

Long silence.

‘And what was that about a lense?’ she eventually asked.

‘When you’re leaving your bed in the middle of the night and racing off to that street corner to pick up that terrified, perhaps injured woman-‘

‘- I had a call just a couple of nights ago.’

‘At that moment she’s her own unique history and situation, but at that moment for you she’s also every victim of injustice or violence in the world- the only one you can do anything about, to use your words.... until your next meeting, fundraiser or protest, ‘I added.

‘And all you were asking was for prayers- for your friend, for that young man- what’s his name again?’

‘Juan’ his name sounding like a prayer.


‘And all you were feeling was the overwhelming injustice, violence; blindness and indifference Juan’s situation embodies.’

‘That priest friend of yours must be really something...’

‘She is, and so are you... All I’m asking, is when you can, carry Juan in your heart/mind- if only his name.’

‘But is it enough?’

‘Who knows... that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in... all we can do is open our hearts, as you do every day, offer them up that they might resonate with God’s love, sort of like those solar cookers our Church is distributing in Africa-‘

‘Solar cookers?’

‘Never mind- another story for another day. But about that ‘overwhelmed,’ sounds like you need to get yourself organized for a very long week-end with Clarke and the dogs- in the country.’

‘I don’t know, he’s kind of busy these days too- with work.’

‘Three days- four max,’ I persisted. ‘All you can do is ask.’

‘I’ll ask... oh, and about Juan- I won’t forget.’

‘That’s all I’m asking,’ I reminded her.

Oh, and this morning, shortly after 5:30 a.m. there was another call- from ‘P’. Overwhelmed, in another way, by the love and support he’s felt ever since his friend the Episcopal priest called him at work yesterday, to tell him to check out my latest post.

‘I sat there, tears streaming down my face, not even realizing my office door was still open- and I’ve never felt so loved, so supported. To think, there are good people out there, and they know about me- if only as ‘P’, and they care. I can feel it.’

‘P’ also had a very insightful gift for ‘E’ who shared his post- about ‘the people of God’ rather than the monolith of the institutional Church being where ‘God is really happening.’ I promised to pass it along.

And one last word from ‘P’ ‘-whoever they are, wherever they are, tell them thank-you. Tell them I love them, I feel so loved and blessed- because of them. ‘

Juan- carry him in your hearts, on your breath, through out your day please. The decisive date is Monday, December 7th- the Deportation hearing. Thank-you.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

my Dec 1st

December 2, 2009

The day after World AIDS Day, and I can’t help but wonder, did anyone learn anything yesterday?

Living with the hard reality of unemployment and diminishing financial resources meant that World AIDS Day this year was observed the way I would have done so every year in the last 20+: in silence, in practice and prayer.

World AIDS Day is very personal for me.

It’s not just the loss of my beloved Louis, one of the most extraordinary beings I’ve ever known, co-founder of the first AIDS service organization here in Montreal and defining gift of my life.
It’s not just the 300+ buddies and friends who died in the care of a programme I helped run before moving on to other forms of activism.
It’s not just the great flood of memory and detail of two over-sized decades on the front lines of service and activism locally.
It’s not just the POZ folks I have known, most unforgettably from Africa, through conferences and networking.
It’s also the great wall of chosen indifference we’d thrown ourselves up against again and again for decades now.

It’s also the aching sense I’ve had since the very first time I met a POZ person from Africa that her suffering and the sense that , the obscene suffering of her great continent needn’t have ever happened if Westerners had re-examined their homophobia and stepped forward to help in that first, nightmarish decade of HIV/AIDS when some winter weeks we had folks dying daily.

It's all interconnected.

Sometime mid-afternoon, keeping my ass on the bench and the long-suffering of my creatures had brought me to a space beyond the memories of helpless frustration, loss and the seeming inability to make a real difference; to a reflective space.

Truth is, my life was totally altered by those decades- in more ways that you’d really want to know about.

Truth is, because of the very real courage, passion and grace I witnessed and shared in the lives of those we lost there are just some things I have zero patience with now.

Truth is it can never be the same: the way life was before those two over-sized, transformiatve decades.

Which strangely enough brought me to the seeing just how those years shape and inform my sense of what is going on in our Church at this moment.

The Church and AIDS you ask? Bare with me please.

Sitting there, the silence ended up asking a series of questions.

In those raw, first years before anyone really knew anything much; before AIDS had been normalized and so many careers were being built on the back of HIV AIDS; what were our options- what was our only real option.

To turn up- to step into the very real poverty of the ‘need’.

What did you have to work with?

Nothing much except each other. Let me rephrase that- nothing much but the grace of God in and through each other.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am NOT glamorizing, idealizing, or fondly looking back.
I remember just how little there was in the way of resources; and how much at times, we were able to do with it.
I remember the end of too many months when there was NOTHING to give.
The meals left out in the hospital hallway- on the floor!
Medical staff double-gloved and masked just to take a temperature.
Substandard housing, inadequate welfare and treatments options running out.
Friends carried out of their apartments, while the landlord hovered, impatient to change the lock.
Unpaid bills, unbought winter clothes, the indifference or rejection of families.
Funerals and late night bedside vigils.
The polite avoidance both by too many churches and the corporate sector.
I remember wasting flesh, the rawness of diapers needing to be changed, silent sunken eyes and fetid breath.

Yes, there was also moments of extraordinary grace- so many of them. Laughter, the incredible Christmas parties we somehow organized, the silent defiance of our marches through the gay village and the joy and generosity of our friends when they knew that Louis and I really were a couple.
Mostly, I remember the raw chasm of ineffective helplessness with each death, and none more so than that of my beloved.

Sitting there, a kalidescope of faces and memories- many of them of ‘the moment’ when individual lives broke open to the hard reality and grace of their situation. The naked place where ‘who,’ ‘when,’ ‘how’ became irrelevant; where victimhood was cast off, and Life- every precious moment of it became the only priority.

Which brigs me even closer to this sense of the interconnectedness between the reality we lived then and the current state of our Church.

Current appearances to the contrary- yes inspite of all the noise, the panicked fear, the threats, recriminations, the supercilious posturing and condamnations; we, the Church - let me be more specific, the Anglican Church is standing on very sacred ground, where the Holy Spirit is closer to us than breath, where the transformative possibilities are limitless; where the ‘dream of God,’ and the call to heal Her creation has never been stronger or clearer.

But inherent in that dream- that call, are a few things the Church- our Church has to embrace and own up to; and as I say this the face of one exquisitely precious friend comes to mind. An accomplished correographer and dancer, it was only in that quite, but very sacred moment when she owned her sero-status, that she stepped beyond being a victim of either circumstances or virus and owned the gift of life she had been given, with all its many graces, its gifts and its lessons.

Likewise, I’d suggest there are a few things our Churches have to own up to and own:

1) It’s history, and the suffering & harm it has done in too many lives, the scandal and insanity it has, at times been implicit in- never more so than currently in Uganda.
Buried in this hard but radically freeing truth is a TREMENDOUS gift once we step into the realization that the life, ministry and death of our blessed Lord and Saviour was about anything but power. It was and is about Life

I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.

2) The sacred ambiguity (h/t saint Verna) which contemporary critical study of Scriptural texts calls us into is a wondrous, freeing, ambiguous gift. Within this context it is my understanding that ‘idolatry’ is essentially a futile attempt to control reality, to colonize or franchize the Living God and the sacrament of life itself- usually in the exercise of power.

3) The sacramental gift of the lives, grace and ministry of the faithful laity, and none more so now than the LGBT faithful, who continue to fill our pews, continue to contribute of their gifts and time, and continue to stand witness to that ‘Love beyond our wildest imaging’ in their lives and vocations within a patriarchal monolith which continually wills them back to a ‘crucified place.’
To quote one, very dear sister, ‘when are they going to realize, it’s our best they receive- the best of our loves, our lives and faith.’

Please let me contextualize this within two conversations which began in the weeks before December 1 but which resonated deeply within my practice and observance yesterday.

‘P’ is a man in his thirties, an accountant by profession, a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church, who recognizing his gender as a gay man chose to remain faithfully celibate, and for more than a decade worked in his diocesan structure as a professional accountant before moving on to work in the corporate sector. ‘P’ knew of me through a family member of his in another city with whom he’d often had issues over her leaving ‘the Church’ over the issues of the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBT faithful. ‘P’ like too many closeted faithful was ‘the Church’s’ staunchest defender' in their ‘discussions he told me ironically.’

Two things in particular brought ‘P’ ‘to the wall,’ to use his words: ‘taking on’ James Carroll’s ‘Practicing Catholic’ and subsequently the ‘arrogant pronouncement of the American Council of Bishops’ on the efficacy of end of life suffering.

‘It all just shattered- like that’ he told me through audible tears. ‘Carroll is right- so much of it is man-made b.s. inflicted on a Jesus-hungry faithful to shore up the power of a bunch of old men in skirts.

There was one paragraph in particular ‘P’ read to me over the phone:

‘When the Gospels have Jesus ‘predicting’ the destruction of the Temple and identifying himself as the replacement, they are describing an after-the-fact adaption that Jesus’ followers made to what the Romans had already done. Writing in 80 or 100 a story that claims to be happening in 30, they bring into that story, as prophecy, the decisive destruction of the Temple in 70. The Temple will be destroyed, Jesus says, because the Jews are rejecting him. But the rejection in question is experienced not by Jesus in 30, but by Jesus’ followers in 80 or 90 or 100, afer the Temple has been destroyed.
James Carroll, ‘Practicing Catholic’ pp 143

‘Why were we never taught this? How can they continue to teach inerrancy,’ ‘P’ challenged me over the phone.

The other conversation began almost two weeks earlier, from ‘E’ in her late forties; single mother of two adult children; a narcotics officer seconded for a year to an American federal agency. ‘Away from home for a year’ on this posting, she’d quite innocently asked the pastor of the Lutheran Church she is currently attending for some reading suggestions for the long evenings she spends alone in her’ temporary quarters.’

‘E’ was reading Marcus Borg when she called- referred by that same pastor who has been an online friend of mine for more than two years now.

‘Jesus, Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary’ was the volume in question, and ‘the wall’ ‘E’ had hit was Borg’s chronological de-construction of Scripture.

Rather than weeping, ‘E’ was angry- without being sure who the real target was, and uncomfortable sharing what she was feeling with her interim pastor, ‘someone I barely know,’ she told me without being aware of the irony of speaking to an absolute stranger long distance.

When my initial suggestion, that what was really going on here was a call from the Holy Spirit, an invitation to embrace both a larger life and a larger faith, ‘E’s anger and the pain beneath it found its bullseye- yours truly.

Less than an hour later she called back, and we talked, prayed in our respective silences, and yes, even laughed late into the night. (Danged time differences!)

Several times ‘E’ quoted to me what I sensed were the articles of the faith of her particular denomination, none of which I ever challenged.

However I did suggest they might be only part of the picture, a ‘particular context.’

Sometime after midnight, with me asking questions more than anything ‘E’ was silent for several very long moments. ‘... I think I’m finally getting it... there’s God, and there’s the Church, and what I’ve been doing... what I’ve been holding on to is the Church, not God.’

I reminded her of her own family’s story, how one of her grandfathers or great grandfathers had literally been responsible for much of the construction and all of the beautiful carving in the prairie church she still considered her spiritual home, and that there is real beauty in all of that.

‘Yes, but Church without... personal relationship with God is... rules and real estate.’

We actually ended up discussing ‘the gift of Borg,’ how the scholarship he shares can be used as a lense- an always incomplete lense, for ‘seeing through the structure to God waiting for us in the very sacrament of our lives.

Yes, we actually talked about the sacrament of ‘E’s’ life, and that’s when there were tears.

‘E’ I sent back to her pastor with the suggestion that perhaps they might want to start a group study of Borg’s book.

‘P,’ with his permission I put him in touch with a gay Episcopal priest I know of in his city. Not for conversion- for friendship.

Their first contact was when ‘P turned up ‘unannouced’ at Sunday Eucharist, and sat there in tears, ‘at the sheer wonder if it all. So many tears I almost didn’t go up to receive the Sacrament,’ he told me.

‘P’ and his new friend have got together several times, for an ‘incredible meal’ at the rectory, for a film 'that had nothing to do with anything but laughter,' and several long walks.

‘E’s’ last e-mail to me closed with ‘ not a cloud in the sky. Everything is indeed possible with God.’

And sitting there late last night it all fit together- my understanding of the great blessings our ordained sisters have brought our Church; the awesome miracle of November 2, 2003 and the truly great gift the faithful of New Hampshire gave our Church; the frightened noisy theatrics from what another friend calls ‘the peanut gallery of the Anglican purity police’; the persistent wonder of the faithfulness and generosity of so very many LGBT lives within our Church and the life-affirming powerful ways in which the Holy Spirit is using those lives to bring us into ‘life more abundantly.’

Yes, there were tears, of love and thankfulness, of awe and remembrance.

Thanks be to God.