Without An Experience of Extravagant Love, We Have No Hope to Become Better

November 30, 2014

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64:2-7; Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Advent originally was a 40 day fast that helped Christians to prepare for Christmas.  While most Catholics have dropped the penitential fasting, we have retained a mood of sober reflection.  In the excitement of shopping and planning holiday parties, the readings for the first Sunday of Advent – in particular, the first reading by Isaiah — give us a space to reflect briefly on our need for God’s extravagant love.

Isaiah mourns the sinfulness of his people.  He claims they have strayed so far from God that they are like “withered leaves” without life and that their “good deeds are like polluted rags.”  But “no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen” such greatness as God.  Isaiah praises God’s true greatness by starting and ending his lament with the bold proclamation that God remains the people’s loving parent despite their hardened hearts.  Though the people stray from righteousness, God waits with outstretched arms to embrace them like a father or mother would embrace a beloved child.

In a similar vein, Pseudo-Dionysius, a 6th century Christian author, creates a humbling picture of God’s extravagant love and desire for relationship with us as revealed through Jesus:

“Jesus clings lovingly to those who even depart from him… [He] makes excuses for them, and further promises to serve them, and runs towards and meets even those who hold themselves aloof… when his entire self has embraced their entire selves, he kisses them, and does not reproach them for former things, but rejoices over the present, and holds a feast, and calls together friends…”

I cannot help but to think of God’s extravagant love made manifest between human beings in the scene from Les Miserables where Valjean is given a meal and place to sleep by an elderly bishop.  In the middle of the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, strikes the old man when confronted, and flees into the darkness.  When Valjean is apprehended the next morning and returned to the bishop’s residence, the bishop dismisses the police and helps Valjean to pack up the rest of the silver.  The bishop realizes that, without an experience of extravagant mercy and love, Valjean has no hope to transform into someone better.

I think it is the same for us – without an experience of extravagant love, we have no hope to become better than we are.  In the midst of making Christmas present lists and writing cards, perhaps each of us might reflect on how we have experienced God’s extravagant love in our own lives, give thanks for that experience, and, like the elderly bishop from Les Miserables, find ways to share that same love with others.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


Jesus Calls Us Just As We Are–Wrinkles, Warts, and All

December 22, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 has been featuring reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio

During the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition, the Church prays the “O Antiphons,” which are antiphons for the Magnificat during Vespers. They are called “O Antiphons” because each one begins with the interjection “O.” Each one is a title for Christ and refers to the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. The precise origin of the “O Antiphons” is unknown, but by the eighth century, they were used in liturgical celebrations in Rome.

The most well-known of the O Antiphons is “O Emmanuel.” The first reading and the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent both recall this antiphon. Isaiah prophesies that a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, who shall be named “Emmanuel.”

The Gospel reading repeats this prophecy, after stating that Mary was found to be pregnant before she lived with Joseph, to whom she was engaged. Assured by an angel that Mary’s child was conceived through the Holy Spirit, Joseph took Mary into his home. And all this took place, Matthew tells us, to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had foretold. “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.” Matthew is telling us that, through Jesus, we know that God is with us.

It seems easy for me to believe that God is here with us in the “good times.”  When I have no financial worries, when I can relax because all my work is done for the moment, when I am enjoying myself with friends and loved ones, when government officials pass a measure that is respectful of the dignity of LGBT people, I can say, “O God, I know you’re here and it’s good!”

Then there are the “bad times” when my Dr. Jekyll is transformed into Mr. Hyde. I am cranky, critical of Church authorities, judgmental of others’ idiosyncrasies, disappointed in myself and others, wallowing in self-pity. Where are you God when I experience my shadow side?

Pope Francis talked about this shadow side in an extensive interview he gave for the Jesuit journals. Formerly called Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After some silent time, Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” He then talked about often visiting in Rome the Church of St. Louis of France to contemplate Caravaggio’s (who, by the way, was gay) painting of “The Calling of St. Matthew” (see above).

In the painting, Jesus’ finger is pointing at Matthew, calling him to be an apostle. “That’s me,” the Pope said. “I feel like Matthew.” Matthew, the tax collector, is clutching his money as if to say, “No, not me! This money is mine. Don’t call me. Let me stay in my darkness with my money.”

It is comforting to know that, like Matthew, Pope Francis is conscious of his sinister and gloomy side. Like Matthew and Pope Francis, I too am being called in my “bad times.” Jesus is there, inviting me with his finger to follow him. Indeed, that is most often when God calls us.

Some of us can faithfully recite the opening questions and answers from the old Baltimore Catechism. Question: “Who made me?”  Answer: “God made me.” Question: “Why did God make me?”  Answer: “God made me to know him, to love him, to serve him, and to be happy with him in heaven.”

I would like to see a new Baltimore Catechism and everyone should be required to memorize what should be its first question: “Why did Jesus come?” Answer: “Jesus came to show God’s great love for me. Jesus came to tell me that God loves me just the way I am—with wrinkles or crooked teeth or no hair or warts, socially inept, nasty to others and myself, with a diseased heart or a diseased body. Jesus came to let me know that, despite all these flaws, I am very special. Jesus came to say that God is with us in the good times and the bad.

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Patiently Waiting for the Desert to Bloom With Abundant Flowers

December 15, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the third Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146: 6-7, 8-9, 9-10; James 5:7-10;  Matthew 11:2-11.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

Since Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy of the Gospel, first appeared in late November, I have been reading this book-length document in small pieces. The other day, as I sat in my easy chair and continued to soak in his words of encouragement and advice, I found myself at the section about spiritual reading, particularly reading the Word of God. “Great!” I thought. “Here’s some help for the homily I need to write!”

Pope Francis writes that, after we perform a recollected reading of the text, we ask ourselves some questions about the Scripture passage. What does this text say to me? What about my life needs to change? What do I find pleasant or attractive in this text for my life? Francis says that we need to avoid the temptation to apply the passage to other people. Now, this hits home! During the Scripture readings at Sunday worship service, I sometimes find myself thinking, “I hope so-and-so heard that!”

With Francis’ advice at hand, I read and reread the Scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Advent to figure out what God was saying to me. Isaiah speaks of a joyful time when all will be made right and good: feeble hands and weak knees will be strengthened, blind eyes will be opened, and deaf ears will hear. But until this time arrives, the epistle of James cautions us to be patient, just as the farmer waits for the rains to water the precious fruit of the earth. We are not to complain about one another, but look to the prophets as examples of the patience God asks of us.

The Gospel reading gives us an example in the prophet, John the Baptist. John preached a stirring message of repentance for sin and baptism with water to cleanse the body and soul, but John waited patiently for a Messianic figure, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. From his prison cell, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if his waiting time is over. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John is an example of patience.

In my own life, I find that it’s “the little things” about which I am impatient. Why is the car in front of me going so slowly? Why do I feel exasperated when others don’t do things the way I do? Why am I annoyed when I can’t find my gloves or keys? Why do these things alter my mood from one of peace and lightheartedness to sourness and grumbling?

I seem to be somewhat patient about “the big things,” like changes in the church’s teaching on homosexuality or sexuality, in general, because history attests to the evolution of thought and understanding about sexuality. As the Christian community learned about the workings of human sexuality from the various sciences, I see how we adapted our ideas about sexual morality and ethics. We already see these changes of thought in various theological positions and in the minds and hearts of the laity. I believe that one day these sexual teachings will change on the hierarchical level, so I am a bit patient, although I sometimes ask, “How long, Lord? How long?”

Or perhaps I am learning to be patient about “the big things” of Church doctrines because I am coming to see that Church teachings are rightly fading in importance. Maybe they don’t need to change right now, but just recede into the background until they can be modified. As Pope Francis has said, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” The Church needs to focus “on the essentials, on…what makes the heart burn, … (on) the Gospel.”

Pope Francis is guiding us back to the essential message of Jesus that the Church needs to preach and we need to hear: God loves us just as we are, in all our sinfulness and messiness and impatience and is calling us to love God in return by showing love for others, ourselves, and all of creation.

So during this Third Sunday of Advent, I pray for patience in “the little things” and “the big things” until the time, as Isaiah says, when the desert will “bloom with abundant flowers.”

As I write these Advent words, I can look up from my desk to see a plaque on my office wall. On the plaque is one of my favorite excerpts from a letter of Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to her sisters. Her words are a fitting reminder of Advent patience: “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; therefore, their roots are sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Choosing Between Mercy and Judgment

December 8, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72: 1-2. 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3: 1-12.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“Slay the wicked.”  “Crush the oppressor.”  “Coming wrath.”  “Unquenchable fire.”  In today’s readings, Isaiah and John the Baptist use some strong language about God’s impending judgment and wrath.  And I like it. 

I would not mind seeing some hardcore divine judgment fall upon people who perpetrate evil in our world.  I am tired of reading in the news about hungry children, homeless families, corrupt politicians, war-torn countries, and corporate greed.  I am angry that the strong and influential exploit the weak and unknown.  How long, O Lord, until the oppressors are crushed and the wicked are slain?

However, contrary to Isaiah, John the Baptist, and my own deeply flawed heart, judgment and wrath are not the way of Jesus or the God he proclaimed.

Through Jesus, we see that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).  God overwhelms all of us with love that exceeds our ability to sin – that is mercy!  It is not asked for or deserved, but freely and lavishly given.  Judgment and wrath bring only sadness and death into our world, not life – and our God is one of abundant life.  Mercy brings true justice and wholeness into our world.   

What does this mean to us?  As Catholic LGBT people and allies, we can create a more inclusive Church by welcoming God’s abundant mercy into our own hearts, and then by sharing that love with others–particularly with those fellow Catholics who may say disparaging things or create discriminatory policies against LGBT people.  It is our own experience of undeserved mercy that compels us to generously extend mercy to others. 

For example, if a bishop or pastor condemns marriage equality, I think denouncing him as a bigot who hates lesbian and gay people is not consistent with what Jesus taught.  Our culture encourages us to attack those who disagree with us, but angry words and vitriol will only magnify and perpetuate the mistrust and rancor in our Church.  Instead, perhaps we should focus on building relationships – invite the bishop or pastor to have coffee or lunch to share our stories.  Send him a Christmas card with a family photo.  If he keeps us at arm’s length, we should keep the doors open by periodically reaching out to him.  Our task is to build bridges rather than throw stones. 

Our loving witness and patient invitation to dialogue will give others the opportunity to experience God’s mercy – and possibly change their hearts about LGBT people.  We pursue justice for LGBT people by changing hearts through showing mercy in personal interactions, not through judgment and wrath.

There is power in mercy.  As we continue our Advent preparations, perhaps we can reflect on how God’s “mercy triumphs over justice” in our own lives – and how we can show mercy to others.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Are You Ready to Rejoice?

December 1, 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the first Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122: 1-9; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“I have issues with anyone who treats God as a burden instead of a blessing.  You people don’t celebrate your faith; you mourn it.”

A heavenly-muse-turned-stripper named Serendipity made these observations in Dogma, a 1990s satirical film about two renegade angels banished for eternity to Wisconsin.  Her point was that many Christians understand their relationship with God in terms of rules, judgment, and punishment, which produces a rather grim spiritual life and an outward emotional disposition to match.  Fewer Christians appear to understand their relationship with God as a source of love, acceptance, and freedom, which can cultivate an exterior joy that is difficult to miss. 

Pope Francis echoed the sentiments of this stripping celestial being earlier this year when he lamented sour-faced Christians whose hearts have “grow[n] old and wrinkled” and inhospitable to others.  If we are grim and pessimistic Christians, what does that say about the God we proclaim?  How will others come to experience and trust in God’s love if we are miserable?  Unfortunately, gloominess is a terminal illness for our spiritual life. 

Our cure is in the readings for the first Sunday of Advent, which remind us of God’s ever-increasing nearness.  The psalmist calls us to “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” to celebrate God’s presence among us – indeed, we will soon celebrate the Incarnation of God-with-us during Christmas.  We must “stay awake” for God “is nearer now than when we first believed.”  How can we be gloomy Christians if we truly believe that God has become one of us and continues to be with us now?

As LGBT Catholics and allies, we have many reasons for gloominess.  Numerous LGBT church workers have been fired from Catholic institutions for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and beliefs about marriage equality.  Our bishops take every opportunity to oppose state and federal legislation that ensures employment non-discrimination and marriage equality for LGBT people.  If the story stopped here, then we would have good reason to be gloomy Christians.

However, our story continues with many reasons to rejoice.  Pope Francis has made several positive remarks about LGBT people.  More and more LGBT Catholics (including priests and nuns!) are leading lives of fullness and integrity by coming out to their families, friends, and faith communities.  More parishes than ever are welcoming LGBT people and their families as active members of the community.  As we build a more inclusive and loving Church, God is able to draw nearer and nearer to us.  Indeed, we are incarnating God for one another!  What an awesome reason for rejoicing! 

Perhaps Dorothy Day is helpful to us:  “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us?”  Our work to create a more welcoming Church is difficult, but as LGBT Catholics and allies, our task is to be joyful people.  Others may disagree with us about LGBT issues, but they will see our love and joy — and see God in us.  If we are joyful witnesses, not gloomy and sour, then others will recognize the beauty and love that LGBT people bring to our Church – and we will transform it!

Let us resolve this Advent season to be joyful Christians.  If we focus on reasons to rejoice and celebrate our faith, not mourn it, then we will transform ourselves and touch the hearts of others.  

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

 


Hoping in Christ Amid Troubling Times

December 23, 2012

The Visitation

The liturgical readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent are Micah 5: 1-4a, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-45. You can view the readings here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122312.cfm

In the Advent season, we ascend towards a peak expectation for Christ’s coming that plays out this fourth Sunday. The readings today unequivocally proclaim the coming goodness, exuding hope in these final moments before we celebrate the Incarnation!

Yet, life’s daily demands coupled with so many troubling moments these last few days may challenge our participation in the joy of Advent’s peak that Scripture calls us to. On Catholic LGBT issues, the news this week reveals an undercurrent of strengthened anti-equality messaging from the Vatican and the rejection of LGBT students at Catholic schools. Travesties such as the Newtown massacre add to this challenge of truly hoping in Christ.

In the first two readings, the prophet Micah and St. Paul address religious communities short on hope and weary of living their faith. Micah preaches against those who dutifully perform rituals while sustaining an unjust society, instead favoring a return to just human relationships as God’s truest desire for us. In today’s excerpt, we hear:

“You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel…

“He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the LORD,
in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
and they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth;
he shall be peace.”

The peasant prophet identifies a marginalized community as the place from which the greatest ruler of Israel and restoration of thriving religious belief will emanate. For Micah, it is the suffering and outcast communities that create and catalyze this return to righteousness, not the established institutions or most ritually pious. From the margins comes the hope, the joy, the peace, and the love that we must create in the world.

Perhaps, even when tough news dominates, we can learn to leap with joy like John the Baptist does in Elizabeth’s womb, as today’s gospel describes. We should embrace love of each person in place of religious legalism that obfuscates Christ’s presence. We should welcome all persons into our churches, focusing on the presence of love in each person and every relationship. And when we cannot love as such and feel pained or powerless, we must remember the words of Oscar Romero that speak to the true origins of our hope:

“We can hope for [justice], not because we humans are able to construct that realm of happiness which God’s holy words proclaim, but because the builder of a reign of justice, of love, and of peace is already in the midst of us.”

May we always be aware of this reality and respond joyfully to it, even in troubling times.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


What Should We Do? Rejoice!

December 16, 2012

The liturgical readings for the third Sunday of Advent are Zephaniah 3: 14-18a, Philippians 4: 4-7, and Luke 3:10-18. You can view the readings here http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm .

How long must we wait before the entire church, including the hierarchy, treats LGBT people as equals?  That question has been put to me many times in my years working here at New Ways Ministry.  It is usually asked in a despairing tone, with no expectation that a positive answer will be offered.

rejoicingThe readings from today’s liturgy, however, do offer a positive answer to that question of how long we must wait.  The answer is we don’t have to wait.  The reign of God is already here.  It’s up to us to recognize and live that reign of justice and equality, and one way to do that is simply to rejoice!

Rejoicing is what today’s readings urge us to do.  Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is called Gaudete (Latin for “Rejoice”) Sunday.  Why should we rejoice, especially when we see so much injustice surrounding us?  Because, as Christians we believe that God is already with us in the struggle for justice.  In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah says:

“Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.”

And in the second reading, St. Paul exhorts us:

“Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all. . .”

We are faced here with one of the great Christian paradoxes:  we are awaiting God, yet God is already with us.  The appearance that God is not already with us makes it tempting for us to despair.  The fact, revealed by faith, that God is indeed with us causes us to rejoice.

Rejoicing can help our spirits.  It can remind us of God’s presence with us even when empirical facts seem to proclaim an absence.  Rejoicing helps us to believe: it strengthens our faith that God’s reign has come.  And with our faith strengthened, we can start doing the works of mercy and justice that will actually make our faith in the reign of God more manifest to others and to ourselves.

In the Gospel, the followers of John the Baptist, who has been preparing people for the reign of God, ask him “What should we do?”  John tells his followers (and us) that we need to start acting out the reign of God:  act justly, live mercifully, do the things that you expect to see when God’s reign is in effect.    In effect he is telling them the same message from the much-quoted saying of Gandhi:  “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

For those involved in the work of justice and equality for LGBT people, today’s readings challenge us in two ways.  First, we must not give into despair, but, instead, rejoice.  God is already with us!  Others in the church may not yet see it, but we know that it is true.   The glass is half-full.  Already wonderful things are happening in the church that reflect God’s reign of justice for LGBT people.

Second, to hasten God’s reign and make it more evident, we need to live as if that reign already existed.  So many of you already do that: you act with justice and equality towards LGBT people and you continue to struggle for their rights.  Those are the kinds of actions that make our church and society more welcoming places.  Those are the kinds of actions that are more powerful than any homophobic nay-sayers.  Those are the kinds of actions that make God present in the world and call for even greater rejoicing!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


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