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How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?

This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275

traces of hope

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A friend died yesterday. Death is always an event that raises existential questions. And so I have been thinking about God and meaning and I wonder if perhaps the reason we need to believe in a God is not so much that we need to believe in an all powerful creator, and a grand design and purpose for the universe, but rather that we simply want to believe in “I.” We want the Self that we experience to be a reality, and, for that to be true, our Self has to be important to someone or something beyond ourselves. We don’t want to believe that we are just an anonymous part of a chaotic universe in which neither the universe or our Self has a purposeful beginning, history, or future. We don’t want to believe that our actions and reactions are just a matter of chemicals and neurological responses. We want to believe in the I, the Self, and the power of free will. For our individual Self to be real, we have to believe that there is something intrinsically different, ontologically different, between our species and other species: our ability to create ideas from nothing, not just imitate; our ability to love selflessly; our ability to recognize and respond to the Divine. And so we are drawn to the notion of a God who created it all from nothing, the universal Thou to our personal I. A Being who created us, chose us, knows us, loves us – and not just us collectively but individually.

I attended synagogue services Friday evening and prayed for my friend’s recovery. But I find the Reform Jewish service unsatisfying. It identifies the concept of a God, a creator, the name above all names, but without a re-enactment, without God’s words being spoken directly to us in some ritual drama, we never quite cross the threshhold of an invitation to believe in God and move into an engagement in communication with God.

In a Christian eucharist the words and acts of Jesus at the last supper (in so far as Paul remembers them) are re-enacted. We enter into that drama through our responses, and we participate, allbeit in a theatrical fashion, in a relationship with a God who knows us and loves us – each of us individually in our very Self – loves us enough to die for us. There is great power in this experience. It can bring about changes in a person’s life, elicit a decision to pursue a vocation, bring about conversion, provide relief from despair. It doesn’t matter who takes the role of Jesus, there is no magical power bestowed at ordination and no significance to gender, what is important is that someone speaks in Jesus’ place, addressing us in the first person, and that that someone believes in what they are saying. If you like, they have to be a good actor. If you love live theatre and live music as much as I do you will know the power of a good performance: for a while you can be completely drawn in to an alternate reality. The Eucharist is live drama and at it’s best it has the power to draw us in to an alternative reality to the one presented by society. And what it teaches us is that this alternative reality – a God centered universe – is the Truth.

Love relationships have a similar power to affirm the Self. We are known and chosen by another, our Self becomes more real because someone else acknowledges it. One level of devastation in a break-up is the loss of that sense of Self, our I. Without someone to love us how do we know who we are? Or even if we really exist. People will even comment, She seems lost.

It is common knowledge by now the degree of damage done to an infant that does not have its existence affirmed, that does not bond to a caretaker, that does not experience loving eyes and touch – statistically they have a harder time simply staying alive, and certainly they will struggle to thrive. But that need does not end in infancy. Without the love of parents and close friends and partners and children to identify us, who are we? If we at least have faith in a God, we have a chance of believing in our reality, our existence as an I, a separate Self. But without belief in the love of God and without the love of intimate relationships? It is easy to understand the descent into hopelessness and despair of the isolated and depressed individual who faces a world in which he seems to be invisible.

Does technology help here? I don’t think so. People do not encounter us as who we are through social media, so our identity, our I, is not affirmed. There are layers upon layers of deception and secrecy on the internet that we use to shield ourselves from others. So it does not really help in our quest to affirm out existence, our identity, our uniqueness. Encountering our true Self requires real interaction in person with another, and seeing and experienceing their acceptance of us as an I that exists and is unique and worth knowing.

My friend was with my husband and me for four months in Houston after Katrina, part of an uprooted high school community from New Orleans. We all became friends and I discovered in him a brooding, anxious, angry side that made me afraid for him. But after Katrina he married and had a baby. He was more mellow, his existence had been affirmed, his identity had been acknowledged: he had been singled out and chosen above all others. There was less anger, more real joy. I’m so glad he had that experience – of being (re)created, of his Self being affirmed – before he died at the young age of 39. And if there is a God, my friend will now know for certain who he is and how much he is loved.

God had nothing to gain by the death of Jesus. Jesus was willing to suffer death but for what? There is no Gospel tradition that suggests he believed he was going to be better off, or that his death wasn’t a real death just a temporary state. There is no mention of a quid pro quo deal with God. Jesus chose to die, but really what choice did he have if he wanted to show his followers what integrity, truth, courage and faith looked like, to show them that his preaching, his ministry, and his leadership were not meaningless, and that the truth was worth dying for. To have fought back would have made a lie out of everything he had said and done.

Did he think he was “opening the gates of heaven,” that he would be the “first born into the kingdom” I don’t think so. This was theological interpretation after the event. What I do think is that he truly suffered. I don’t doubt his anxiety, his panic, his dejection, and how better to express it than by quoting the scriptures he knew and loved: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” Psalm 22. Jesus wasn’t in this for a reward or a “return.” This was the gift freely given, the grace freely offered. God freely gave us his son. Jesus freely gave us his life.

“…biblical authors often used humor and the absurd to alert their readers that something very important is about to happen. The births of Isaac and Jesus were my two examples. The idea that either a woman in her nineties or a virgin can give birth is, I said, absurd, and the authors knew this to be so. They never expected their readers to take them literally. Rather they were saying, look these births herald the coming [of] something new into the world and hence break with the normative ways of producing offspring.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro, http://rabbirami.blogspot.com/2012/11/stand-up-theology.html

We all love Thanksgiving dinner and all its trimmings – a beautiful family tradition that brings our families together and mends and heals and nurtures. Now, just a few weeks later we are immersed in the Christmas story and all its trimmings. And, once again, we prepare for family gatherings and for opportunities to renew and reclaim, to nest and remember. But what is it as Christians that we are called to remember? What is the Christian heart of our Christmas story?

Obviously, it’s not Christmas lights and fir trees; it’s not snow men or reindeer. It’s not Santa Claus or even Saint Nicholas – he came much later.

Is it the angels singing in the fields, and the shepherds? Is it wise men from the East and their gifts? Is it Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – that’s hardly festive? Okay, what about the stable and the ox and ass and manger? There has to be a manger because of the song, right? And everybody loves the scene of the angels and shepherd and the baby!

Everybody loves a story of a baby, especially one in which there is danger and pathos and heroism and compassion and beauty and a happy ending with angels singing and a star from heaven guiding a family to safety so a baby can be born under a starry sky….ahhhh! Cue the heavenly chorus. Then add the mysteries and treasures of the Orient and a baby lamb and some portentous dreams. What is not to like about this story? But we still haven’t gotten to the Christian heart of the story. We are still in the Christmas Story. And that is where Christmas stays for so many people it seems, and not just children.

In my experience, adult Christians who have become disenchanted with Christmas have become disenchanted with the Christmas Story not with the Christian Story. In fact they may not really know the Christian story. And here we get to Rabbi Rami’s point.  The Gospel writers, writing decades after Jesus’ death, were not historians of his life; they were not biographers. They were tellers of his Teaching, Death, and Resurrection – and only as an afterthought his birth, and only because, after all, he had to have had one.  In telling about his birth their main concern was to say that God was involved, and that from the very beginning the Jesus Event was a God Event. Not just from the moment of his baptism (Mark), not just from the moment of his announced conception (Matthew and Luke) but even from before the moment of creation (John).

The Gospel writers, when addressing the issue of Jesus’ birth, were giving us theology not biology.  They weren’t interested in eggs, sperm, uteruses – they didn’t know about such things. They weren’t interested in the human person as evil matter versus a good spirit, that idea was a Greek idea that didn’t have any influence on the Gospel writing, obviously, because Jesus clearly had a body in all the Gospel narratives.  The Gospel writers weren’t concerned about Original Sin either; Augustine would create that idea a few hundred years later.

The Gospel writers were telling us, using hyperbole and using Old Testament allusions, that the Jesus Event was a God Event, and that it had always been a God Event, since the beginning of Jesus’ life, or even since the beginning of all time. Moreover, the Jesus Event had been prefigured by many different stories in the Old Testament, showing that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah of Jewish expectation. For example, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew especially took great pains to connect his version of the Infancy Narrative, as it is called, to prophecies in the Old Testament. For example he connects the family’s trip to Egypt, and the ensuing slaughter of the innocents – two stories no other Gospel includes – to prophecies in Hosea and Jeremiah respectively. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish-Christian and in his use of Old Testament quotes and allusions he may simply be using a literary device to make his theological points: the Jesus Event was a God Event; Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.  The early Christians hadn’t gone any further than this in trying to figure out Jesus’ relationship to God yet, other than the basic language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The debate about the Trinity took nearly four hundred more years to settle (Council of Nicea 325, Chalcedon 451).

So what then is my point? If we are suffering from Christmas ennui, maybe it’s because we simply have lost sight of the Christian Story.  My solution? Let’s give ourselves the gift of a LITERARY GOSPEL CHRISTMAS. Let’s do some reading of the Gospel narratives with a footnoted Bible translation and/or scholarly commentary at hand and really attempt to understand the Christian Story beneath the Christmas story before we call Bah Humbug to it all!

Fellow Travelers? Four Atheists Who Don’t Hate Religion

Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal Magazine, October 26, 2012

My Comment in response to his article:

Paul, I want to thank you for providing such an informed review of the apologists for the Church without Christ (and the Synagogue without Yahweh).

     To put it more bluntly, the secular self-understanding of the liberal state can no longer motivate its citizens to act self-sacrificially in the service of justice. Its failure to find a way to mark death is mirrored by its failure to make passionate collective action a real possibility.

I am currently ambivalent about God, but find myself longing for a Catholic faith community without the Church. What the Catholic Church has come to represent to me is not God but human corruption, self-serving arrogance, and power-hungry pope mongers. The answer is not to give up on God but on the structures of power that inhibit the values of love and self-sacrifice, beauty and reverence, honesty and penitence from becoming present and visible to the Catholic community. The Catholic faithful need to take ownership of these values, take responsibility for their understanding of the message of Jesus, and take over the practice of faithful witness.

I don’t want any priest at my funeral. I may want a particular priest friend of mine, or perhaps a Rabbi – also a dear friend, because each of these friends exemplifies the values of compassion, tenderness, integrity, and justice rooted in a life of reflective, religious faith that I recognize as truly “of God.”

As a victim of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, one of five in my immediate family, the worst way to mark my death for my family would be with an anonymous representative of the organization responsible for our suffering. Even an empty Church would be painful – the context of our abuse. But what about a house with a gathering of loved ones, and the Catholic prayers and rituals of a funeral rite led by those present?  There could be priests, rabbis, druids, agnostics, atheists, as long as each one was a friend representing only his or her own faith in God and/or love of me.

Perhaps one thing of value that can come from the sexual abuse crisis in our Church is that it might make “passionate, collective action a real possibility” among Catholics who are still faith-travelers in search of God, Love, Truth, and Justice. Then maybe more of us can forestall the rejection of God that would bring us, finally, to that empty church and a memorial with no blessing.

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Doubting is but the forefront of faith,
a faith in the infinite growth
of an unbounded creation.

A doubting age is one of restlessness
and discontent with what is current;
a doubt is an idea that is still alive.

To doubt that the past has uncovered all things
is to express faith
that many things are still to be uncovered.

To doubt that we have grown
to our full stature and knowledge
is to express faith that we may develop
into beings of such power and dignity
that we cannot as yet imagine what shall be.

From “The Mishkan T’Filah, a Reform Siddur” (p.405) the prayer book used in Reform Judaism.

 

In his homily on April 15, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for penance as a response to the abuse crisis:
“The pain of penance, that is to say of purification and of transformation, this pain is grace….”

I have to wonder how many thousands of times priests and religious participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and admitted to the crime of child sexual abuse and then were given absolution. It cheapens the notion of grace when these criminals were not required by their confessor to report to the authorities before receiving absolution. How else could they show true repentance? How else could they express a commitment to accepting responsibility for real personal change and the avoidance of future sins of abuse?

 Certain bishops, such as Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, have recommended not offering the Eucharist to those who have a public record of supporting abortion rights. Has anyone ever suggested not offering the sacrament of Reconciliation to those who have a public record of child abuse? Or to those who have privately confessed the crime of child abuse on multiple occasions but have refused to take public responsibility for these crimes? God’s grace is not the magical removal of guilt and responsibility, and the born should be offered at least the same protection as the unborn. Such selective imposition of restriction to a sacrament cheapens the idea of God’s grace, reducing it to a political weapon.

 To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before … Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Up until now the abusive priests, bishops and religious have been offered and have relied upon only a cheapened notion of grace. There has been no transformation. It is time for them to pay the cost; it is time to pluck out from our church those that have caused it to stumble.

Every April, spring comes to the earth. No matter how bleak things have been through the winter, no matter that all our grass died in the hardest cold spell in decades, all is greening once again.

Catholics should draw hope from this. There has to be a death for there to be a resurrection. If we can experience the death of clericalism, misogyny, and financial and moral corruption in the very governing structures of our church, then there is the chance of a Catholic “spring.”

Imagine a new church. What would it be like?

I dream of a future church where gender is not a qualifying factor in the discernment of vocation. A future church where celibacy is not a pre-requisite to priesthood. A future church where authority is decentralized from Rome to national bishops conferences, where the “power” of the papacy is that of spiritual leadership.

Imagine if, instead of palaces, the pope lived in monastic simplicity and prayer was the currency of favors. We wouldn’t need cardinals. The position of pope could be voted on by the bishops conferences in conjunction with the national leaders of all the religious orders. The pope would not have to be multi-lingual, professorial, or even male. The primary quality would be holiness. And there could be a limited term, just as there is for provincials of religious orders. I can’t help it, these dreams give me a flicker of hope.

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (see below for the link)  I am reminded of some of the reasons I choose to remain Catholic. Here are some excerpts:

A Church Mary Can Love ,  By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF. Published: April 17, 2010

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. ….

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/opinion/18kristof.html?src=me

“Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin called on his episcopal colleagues to take responsibility for the Irish Catholic Church’s failures in dealing with child sexual abuse by priests….
“The church tragically failed many of its children: it failed through abuse; it failed through not preventing abuse; it failed through covering up abuse.”
America Magazine, April 5 2010

It is becoming more and more apparent to me that secrecy not celibacy is at the root of the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. What other organisation has offered protection from criminal prosecution, a guaranteed access to hundreds of children, an “old boy” network of support for abusers, and a system of intimidation of victims. Add to this the guarantee of “sacramental absolution” from other priests, what Catholic pedophile would not have been attracted to the priesthood?

 It is a surprise only that any psychologically healthy men could have put up with what was going on around them.

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