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As a progressive Christian I …

1.  Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;

2.  Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;

3.  Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:

  • Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
  • Believers and agnostics,
  • Women and men,
  • Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
  • Those of all classes and abilities;

4.  Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;

5.  Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;

6.  Strive for peace and justice among all people;

7.  Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;

8.  Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

http://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/

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Today’s Gospel was from John chapter 12. One verse caught my attention.

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

 

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In the homily we were reminded of the process whereby a seed grows. It has to be in the right temperature and level of moisture. Then its protective shell has to soften and crack open. Only then can the seed send out a root and a shoot and make food and grow. The hard shell has to be broken.

Two things came to mind as I listened. The first is the obvious prophecy of Jesus’ death and the beginning of the church. Without Jesus’ death would his words have taken root? Without his death would others have been willing to die for their faith? Secondly, I reflected on what happened to bring about his death? He became vulnerable, he let down his defenses, he opened up and spoke the truth that was within his heart.

I recently re-watched a TED talk by Sociologist Brene Brown. She spoke about her discovery that vulnerability is the basis for living a whole life, for being what she calls a whole-hearted person.

“And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

According to Brown in order to be whole-hearted people we have to live with authenticity, “we have to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee, to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love this much? Can I believe in this this passionately?”

Let us hope that as we learn to become more vulnerable, more open, more whole-hearted, we will not be asked to die for the truth the way that Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero and so many other martyrs did. But in this season of Lent let us at least stretch enough, and soften our shells enough, to allow growth to happen.

Mark Mueller at the The Star-Ledger has been following the Fr. Fugee / Archbishop Myers story. This is what the Archbishops’s spokesperson has had to say:

Priest who admitted groping boy appointed to high-profile position in Newark Archdiocese
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/02/priest_who_confessed_to_gropin.html
The Rev. Michael Fugee, who is barred from unsupervised contact with children under a binding agreement with law enforcement officials, has been appointed co-director of the Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests, the archdiocese recently announced in its newspaper, the Catholic Advocate.

….. Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, called Fugee’s new role an administrative position based in the chancery office in Newark. Under no circumstances, Goodness said, will Fugee be alone with children.

“We have every confidence in him,” the spokesman said.

———-

Newark archbishop allows priest who admitted groping boy to continue working with children
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/04/with_approval_of_archbishop_pr.html

But Goodness denied the agreement had been breached, saying the archdiocese has interpreted the document to mean Fugee could work with minors as long as he is under the supervision of priests or lay ministers who have knowledge of his past and of the conditions in the agreement.

“We believe that the archdiocese and Father Fugee have adhered to the stipulations in all of his activities, and will continue to do so,” Goodness said.

Even if Fugee heard private confessions from minors, those supervising Fugee were always nearby, Goodness said. “The fact is, he has done nothing wrong,” the spokesman said. “Nobody has reported any activity that is inappropriate, and I think that’s important to know, especially given that he’s a figure whose name is public and whose past is public.”

———-

Priest at center of Newark Archdiocese scandal quits ministry
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/05/newark_archbishop_monmouth_cou_1.html

Earlier this week, The Star-Ledger reported Fugee had violated that agreement, openly engaging in youth group activities at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck. Fugee is longtime friends with the church’s youth ministers, Michael and Amy Lenehan.

Since the disclosure, Goodness has argued that Fugee did not violate the agreement because he was under the supervision of the youth ministers or other priests. Tonight, the spokesman sought to clarify his statements, saying that while it was “good” Fugee was under supervision, the priest did not seek permission from the archdiocese before participating in youth activities.

“He engaged in activities that the archdiocese was not aware of and that were not approved by us, and we would never have approved them because they are all in conflict with the memorandum of understanding,” Goodness said.

————


Priest admits violating ban on ministry to children, says actions are ‘my fault alone’

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/05/priest_admits_violating_ban_on.html

“In conscience, I feel it necessary to make clear to all that my actions described in recent news stories were outside of my assigned ministry within the archdiocese,” Fugee wrote. “… My failure to request the required permissions to engage in those ministry activities is my fault, my fault alone.”

The archdiocese released the full text of Fugee’s letter yesterday in an apparent effort to quell a public uproar over Myers’ handling of the priest, who signed the agreement with law enforcement in 2007 to avoid retrial on charges he fondled a teenage boy.

For days after The Star-Ledger’s report, a spokesman for the archbishop
Insist Fugee’s interactions with children were within the scope of the agreement, arguing he was under the supervision of lay ministers and other priests.

But amid mounting public pressure, calls by elected officials for Myers to resign and a criminal investigation by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the archdiocese reversed course Thursday, acknowledging Fugee violated the agreement and saying he acted alone.

Myers’ spokesman, Jim Goodness, reiterated that stance in a statement yesterday.
“The archdiocese only learned about two weeks ago when approached by a reporter that Fr. Fugee had engaged in other activities or ministries,” Goodness said. “Had the archdiocese known about them at the time, permission to undertake them would not have been granted.”

20130504-094752.jpg

Photo taken on a Pilgrimage in 2010. Fugee was convicted of sexual abuse in 2003. Facing retrial in 2007 because of a technicality regarding his self-description in his confession, he instead signed an agreement with law enforcement barring him from unsupervised contact with children.

From the Introduction:

Catholic children, given these teachings, did not at first know that there is no historical evidence for Peter being bishop anywhere—least of all at Rome, where the office of bishop did not exist in the first century CE—or that the linear “apostolic succession” is a chain of historical fabrications. What we were supposed to accept is that all priesthoods are invalid ones except the Roman Catholic. Even if we grant the Roman myths, and say that the Catholic priesthood is valid, how is it Christian to make that priesthood a means for excluding all Christians but Roman Catholics?

I shall be arguing here that priesthood, despite the many worthy men who have filled that office, keeps Catholics at a remove from other Christians—and at a remove from the Jesus of the Gospels, who was a biting critic of the priests of his day. To make this argument, I must consider the claim that has set priests apart from all other human beings, their unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. On this claim the entire sacramental structure of the medieval church was built up. The priesthood stands or falls with that claim. I mean to examine it here—dispassionately, thoroughly, historically. The outcome of this debate will determine the future (if any) of the priesthood.

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-02-13/garry-wills-why-priests-failed-tradition

For reasons of health  and advanced age, Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28, 2013.

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What will they do? Will they elect a new King?

 

cappa magna being worn by a cardinal

bacchus 2012

And continue to close their eyes to their crimes?

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 priest-shame-4f105d8c59815

 

Or will they search for the light of the Holy spirit?

flame

 

And imagine a New Beginning, A New Creation?

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And what will the Church do? Because … they are not the Church; the People of God are the Church. And it’s time to stop waiting for Rome to change – or for the perfect Pope, the Council that best expresses your views, the best translation of the liturgy. Start being the Church you want the Church to be. Like the brave women and men who have recently received excommunication.

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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!

Being a religious educator comes with a responsibility to consider how much to engage students in critical thinking. Is critical thinking the antithesis of faith? A study in the journal Science recently asked that question (April 27, 2012).  Their conclusion was that a person’s fundamental, often more intuitive than rational, beliefs are not necessarily set in stone but can be influenced by engaging in analytical thinking. This is a good thing because it means there is hope for our Church.

Catholic religious education has moved away from the critical thinking that was encouraged in the ‘70’s and 80’s. There is now, once again, a fundamental fear of creating “thinking-Catholics,” a fear that originates in Rome and is communicated through our bishops’ control of textbook selections and curricula, and on the college level through mandates.

But in order to remove critical thinking from religious education one has to avoid the study of the Gospels, for starters. The Gospels present four authors/communities of faith who were applying the intuitive as well as analytical parts of their brains to the basic questions: Who was Jesus? What was his message? What did his death mean? Study of the various and sometimes contradictory views of the Gospels introduces students to critical thinking. It has to.

So the emphasis in religious education has moved from the Gospels and Jesus to doctrine and catechism, but without historical context and honesty concerning the messy process of doctrinal development. The first five hundred years of the church were characterized by an intense, often rancorous, sometimes even violent process of debate and disagreement about those fundamental questions raised by the Evangelists.

An introduction to early church history can be a great foil to doctrinal fundamentalism. Sadly, students are often taught ecclesiology in the place of Church history. When I last taught, in 2006, one high school textbook recommended for Church History was based on Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and made no reference to the Reformation. None!  Yet an honest look at the Reformation would provide an extraordinary insight into the fallibility of the church.

But then, that’s the crux of the matter isn’t it. The Church can be seen to have done no wrong, to have taught no errors, to have been led only by saints. The underlying motivation of our hierarchy, in education as in all other matters, is fear of the Truth, not pursuit of the Truth.

Friday I was reading a T.S. Eliot poem on-line, Little Gidding, searching for a quote I  wanted, and when the words of a friend’s passing came to my ears the poem became  a prayer.

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…With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I have always struggled to understand Eliot but have not, until today, tried to understand him with critical commentaries and scholarly insights. But Friday, when I lost Kitty, the words themselves were enough, speaking of endings and beginnings and oneness. And I thought about revelation and scripture and wondered why the poetry was more consoling than the psalm or the gospel verse. And I wondered: isn’t  God speaking in each and through each of these?

Writing that struggles to give voice to the mystery of life and death, give name to the Mystery of life and death, give meaning, give hope. Isn’t that what scripture is, what poetry is? And I asked: is there poetry in the rituals of our faith? Does God speak through those, or only patriarchy and pomposity?  When did we lose the poetry in our sacraments? Perhaps when we replaced poetry with prescription, inspiration with instruction, prophecy with pomposity, mysticism with Magisterium.

Today, even with the reading of a critical commentary, I find myself drawn to the depths of spirituality in Eliot: his struggle, his inspiration, his insight. He was a flawed man and didn’t lay claim to the Truth and yet in his images and allusions I find more Truth than in our doctrine. Once Truth is claimed, Truth is lost. The humility of the Christian poet is more illuminating than the arrogant protestations of the Catholic hierarch.

Friday, in the moment of loss, it was poetry that spoke to me of Hope, God, continuation, Oneness. And I feel no need to honor her further than with these words, in which Eliot references the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich:

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

“It has sometimes seemed to me there are three weak stones sitting dangerously in the foundations of the modern Church: first, a government that excludes democracy; second, a priesthood that excludes and minimises women; third, a revelation that excludes, for the future, prophecy.”

(Letter to Christophe de Gaudefroy, 7 October 1929, Lettres in⁄dites, 80)

In 1929 this Jesuit scholar saw to the heart of the matter regarding the clerical structures of the Church. And on the nature of the human experience:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

The Phenomenon of Man (1955)
 

And in reflecting on the future of the universe, Teilhard is filled with hope and an awareness of human responsibility focused not just inward on personal salvation but outward into the universe:

“Human Energy presents itself to our view as the term of a vast process in which the whole mass of the universe is involved. In us, the evolution of the world towards the spirit becomes conscious. From that moment, our perfection, our interest, our salvation as elements of creation can only be to press on with this evolution with all our strength. We cannot yet understand exactly where it will lead us, but it would be absurd for us to doubt that it will lead us towards some end of supreme value.

From this there finally emerges in our twentieth century human consciousness, for the first time since the awakening of life on earth, the fundamental problem of Action. No longer, as in the past, for our small selves, for our small family, our small country; but for the salvation and the success of the universe, how must we, modern men, organize around us for the best, the maintenance, distribution and progress of human energy?”

(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Building the Earth, “Human Energies” p. 67-68)
 
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