Strange thing is that even in the years when my life & faith were most frequently and immediately realized through the non-dualism of my mindfulness practice and dharma study, Lent, and most particularly Good Friday have been times of particular observance.
This Lent, like many others has been rich with unexpected detours in the reading and practice and more than a few unexpected conversations. A case in point, a story I came across when I’d gone looking for a particular quote for something else I’m writing, only to come across a collection of sermons by a Canadian, United Church minister and a story he quotes from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Once upon a time, an Inuit hunter went to see the local missionary who had been preaching in his village.’
‘I want to ask you something,’ the hunter said.
‘What’s that?’ the missionary inquired.4’If I do not know about God and sin,’ the hunter said,’ would I go to hell?’
‘No,’ the missionary said, ‘not if you did not know.’
‘Then why,’ asked the hunter, ‘did you tell me?
(quoted in: ’Summoning the Whirlwind’ by Bruce Sanguin)
Though I may not remember its effect the first time I read this, today it literally stopped me in my tracks- had me reaching for my mug of tea and settling into the rocking chair.
I didn’t have to look far for the reasons this story resonates so powerfully for me this time around.
Yet more stories of generations of child abuse, denial, lies and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church in the media on a daily basis this Lent. And then of course there had been the powerful online witness of both our Grandmère Mimi and a powerful post by Elizabeth Kaeton on the topic. Living here in Québec, and more specifically Montréal, a city which once boasted more churches per capita than any other city in North America, the Roman Catholic Church has been a truly oppressive presence historically.
Personally I have to go no further than the memories of my two decades on front-line AIDS care and counselling for a sadly too-rich store of lives marked by self-loathing, fear, emotional & corporal alienation and abuse inculcated by the teachings of Church of Rome for this story to become very personal for me.
Not that our own denomination is exempt- one has only to look at the toxic bilge which has been spewed in the wake of the prayerful election of Mary Glasspool, an exceptional priest by all accounts who as we all know was recently, prayerfully elected as one of two new suffragan bishops in one of the most prophetically courageous diocese of the American church. Between the misogynist simperings of suffragan Paul Lambert (Dallas) and the ugliness of too many exchanges I am told on the HoB listserve of that same Church it is only too obvious how much we have yet to learn about our vocation to be the living Body of Christ and the embodiment of the Good News in the world.
But then there’s also one of my online connections which has been the source of some incredible conversations during this penitential season. An individual I wrote about more than a year ago who came from what he now recognizes as a seriously dysfunctional family where his mother’s primary means for her denial of her husband’s drinking was a toxic, sex-obsessed form of religious hysteria. That same hysteria was used to neutralize what the poor woman feared was her eldest son’s homosexuality and to keep him at home until her death from cancer in his very late thirties.
No this individual is not a victim of sexual interference- one of the few things he was spared- but in his mid-forties he’s still working hard to make a life for himself and discover just who he is, in a city far from his upbringing and the remaining members of his family. Some of the stories he has to tell about getting to where he is now are heart-breakingly funny: like who would have ever thought deciding the colour of your bathroom towels or which toaster you were going to buy could be near-paralyzing decisions, requiring literally weeks of comparison shopping?
Yes, my friend is receiving professional help, but from a therapist who is not really able to fully engage with either his wrestling with effects of his Roman Catholic upbringing or with his current spiritual search, which is where I and a number of other on-line friends come in. Incredibly in my case, contact was made through the therapist’s gay son who had been in contact with me via an online shanga. Another of this man’s online friends is ‘E’ who is part of my own online community of faith, and about whose friendship I have written elsewhere. Both of us received copies of Bart Ehrmans ‘Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) in the mail from ‘E’ early in Lent. I’ve written of my experience with this important book elsewhere, and will undoubtedly do so again. The specific conversation this man and I had, sparked by Erhman, on the franchisization of ‘sin’ is what perhaps resonated most powerfully with me this morning reading this Annie Dillard story.
Not that either of us are denying the existence of sin- either in our individual lives or in human history. Rather it is the ‘doctrine of sin,’ more specifically the Christian doctrine(s) of sin which has caught our attention. ‘Sin’ as a self-fulfilling prophesy most specifically, perhaps even ‘sin’ as a method of crowd control.
In a much earlier post, reaching for the beginnings of a transformative model for us to become the Church I believe God is calling us to be, I suggested that for the Church to even open itself up to the process to which the Holy Spirit is calling us certain things would be necessary.
1) That the Church has to own its history and recognize and embrace the call of the Holy Spirit embedded in those lies, and excesses. Not just its self-published, lavishly illustrated versions of the past, but more importantly the secular version, most readily available in the lives of those who have left or fled the Church
2) That the Church has to come clean on the findings of contemporary historical/critical Scriptural study and thereby open itself to the raw vulnerability of the ambiguity of faith- of dancing with the Holy Spirit in the raw sacrament of our lives. In a similar manner the Church has to stop hiding behind a reactive shamanism which essentially ignores the contradictions and limitation of first and second century ‘doctrines’ constructed on perceptions and prejudices which are no longer credible (slavery, misogyny, being two which most readily come to mind.)
3) That the ‘professionals’ of the Church must essentially become midwives of the living Body of Christ rather than guardians of a propertied fortress of medieval secrets with more holes in them than a Montreal street in spring. Key to this will be the sharing of ministry, the active pursuit shared with the laity of the latest Scriptural study and the critical re-examination of the assumptions of so much of Christian faith and practice.
No, I’m not talking about questioning the divinity of Jesus Christ- in this space and in this particular life Jesus Christ is and will always be Lord. I’m talking about unchallenged doctrines hobbled together in radically different historical realities than ours.
As a theologian friend reminded me very recently, for any of this to happen, ‘it’s going to have to come from the priesthood of the laity- it always does’. Ironically it may because they’re always the one’s most available to the invitation and prompting of the Holy Spirit in the elemental sacrament of their lives.” (more on this later.)
As someone reportedly challenged not too long ago; just how long would any of us hang around if our doctor came into the examining room with a handful of leeches, chanting semi-articulate incantations? And yet in so many aspects of ‘official’ Christian faith actually takes pride in mimicking the rites and worldview of the distant past rather than being brought into the complexity, confusion and rawness of our day.
As I said, the Christian doctrine of original sin is the case in point which started a conversation now involving more than the original two parties, and which several of us now sense might be yet another example of the deconstruction and renewal I believe to be implicit in our vocation to be the living Body of Christ in these times.
Essentially a second century C.E. reaction to a popular doctrine Gnosticism, the central role ‘original sin’ has played in the power of the religious establishment, and the length of time it has gone unquestioned raises a whole rank of questions, perhaps for another time.
A reaction! So much for original, inspired insight!
And just how many other second century ideas or artefacts go unchallenged and play key or defining roles in our sense of self, in our careers or emotional and physical health in everyday life?
Not too many I’d bet.
Scripture tells us by their fruits you shall know them, well let’s look at the fruits of the current models of the Christian institution:
Empty pews, churches and convents being sold off for condo conversion or demolition might suggest that current modeling for the delivery of the Good News and embodying the Living Body of Christ aren’t quite doing it.
The great cloud of ‘raised ’ witness outside our Churches, the prophetic witness and lessons of their lives might suggest that even with all the papal tours, the big blue tents and carbon-heavy councils might suggest that ‘the Church’ has somehow missed the Holy Spirit waiting for us in the primary sacrament of our lives, as confusing, imperfect and small as they might be at times.
The too readily identifiable violence, acrimony, psycho-emotional damage, and injustice which can be directly linked to the practices, pronouncements and structures of ‘official Christianity’ should be a more than convincing proof of the Church’s need for radical renewal and a reconfiguration of our role in the world. Let those with eyes see- inspite of themselves the Holy Spirit is breaking the current models of being Church wide open and sadly those who do nothing more than defensively cling to their self-interests in the existing structures will fare little better than those who might have clung to the pillars of the Hotel Montana in the recent Haitian earthquake.
Of course central to the old model is the need for the official Church to always be ‘right’ and everyone else to be wrong- power which is always essentially the embodiment of fear. And in the process how many untold generations of human suffering have propped up an institution which in too many cases- both large and small, has essentially been anti-life, a frightened damning condemnation of the wondrous, sacred gift of Life itself and of God’s creation. The damning objectification of ‘the world’ just doesn’t work anymore, a first century paradigm reflective of life under Roman domination, it has itself only become the medium for too many other empires, too often in the name of God.
By their fruits you shall know them? How about the objectification, exploitation &, degradation of more than one half of creation, the denial of full their personhood as beings created ‘in the image and likeness of the true and living God?’ Where the Churches have too often become the embodiment of idolatry, prejudice and violence based on first and second century fears, ignorance and domination where is the Holy Spirit going to speak most clearly and most powerfully but outside its marbled, gilded walls and big blue tents; in the inequality, struggles, suffering and violence of contemporary life.
It is my sense, that if the Church is not going to miss out on this invitation writ large by the Holy Spirit the paradigm shift can be as simple as a slight shift of a camera lens- bringing into focus what’s really going on, seeing, listening and hearing the world and its cries as the embodiment of our vocation and not as an objectified ‘other’ to be walled out, condemned, exploited and objectified in a lingo few even understand any longer.
Two other stories to illustrate the wonderful, challenging, at times painful resonances this current discussion has had for me personally.
Early on, the friend I mentioned earlier asked in our forum ‘but what if Erhman’s book is heretical? And if it is, how come his work goes unchallenged?’
Responses ranged from the suggestion that heresy has essentially become a meaningless term, and might even be considered a compliment which one considers the context in which it was coined; to a question in return ‘Do you really think God is afraid of the limitations of Scripture?’
The other are the treasured memories of some of the wonderful fellowship I recently shared with an academic priest currently on sabbatical- his ‘pilgrim year’ as he calls it. A personal pilgrimage which is taking him, not to the seats of ecclesiastical power (Canterbury & Rome) or to the sites of the artificats of the early centuries of Church history, but ‘out there’ in the raw mix of our vocation to be the living Body of Christ. In the short time he stayed with me we rarely slept; prayed, studied and shared late into the night and he left the members of our household mightily blessed, powerfully nourished and delightfully challenged.
In addition to his teaching responsibilities, this treasured friend and brother has campus chaplaincy responsibilities, and prior to his departure for his sabbatical year made a truly courageous proposition to the congregation which numbers more than a hundred twenty, currently with four weekly Eucharists.
Essentially to imagine themselves into being the Church the Holy Spirit is calling them to be; one which will limit itself less to the official rites, but one which will also search out opportunities for shared study, discussion and challenge and which will find more opportunities to encounter each other as people of faith and individuals created in the image and likeness of God.
On the last night he was here, my friend surprised himself with the realization that most of the time together, more than anything else we had been prayerfully sitting with ‘the questions’ rather than referencing ‘official answers’ and perhaps it was the openness of those questions which had permitted the Holy Spirit to make it such a blessed time.
How could we possibly wish for anything less for our beloved Church with its exciting inheritance of Scripture, Tradition and Reason?