What Would John the Baptist Say to Church Leaders Today?

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by New Ways Ministry’s Associate Director, Matthew Myers.  The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are Zephaniah 3: 14:18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“What should we do?”  
John the Baptist is asked this question three times in today’s Gospel reading: by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.  John’s responses build upon his general call to repentance in which he instructs people how to act justly toward one another.  To the crowds, John replies, “Share your excess goods.”  To the tax collectors, “Don’t be greedy.”  And to the soldiers, he says, “Don’t steal people’s goods or destroy their reputations.”  Seems to me like pretty fair instructions.  
We all have those “What should we do?” moments, both big and small.  We ask this question because the way forward is unclear.  Often we turn to wisdom figures in our lives — people we admire and wish to emulate — to enlighten our minds and hearts.  And we turn to Scripture for guidance.
I wonder how John the Baptist might respond to Catholic leaders who choose to discriminate against LGBT employees because of their sexual orientation, gender identity,or relationship status — either by asking them to resign or by firing them outright.  At some point, these Catholic leaders inevitably ask themselves, “What should we do?” in this particular case.  
Rather than advocating the dismissal of LGBT employees, I think John the Baptist might respond by saying, “Don’t unjustly deprive people of their livelihoods” or maybe “Judge a person’s work, not their sexual orientation.” These instructions seem to be more consistent with what John told the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers than what some Catholic leaders choose to do.  
We are all responsible for the choices we make — for our answers to the question, “What should we do?”  Good choices help us to grow in our relationships with God and with other people.  Bad choices corrupt those relationships.  John preaches repentance for our bad choices because we need to repair the disharmony we create.  That is a challenge always before us, but one particularly present in the Advent season when we take a moral inventory of our choices to prepare for Christmas.  
On this third Sunday of Advent, I pray that Catholic leaders make choices that respect the integrity and consciences of their lesbian and gay employees — and that some Catholic leaders make amends to employees who have been unjustly fired.  And I pray for you and me, that we may have the wisdom and fortitude to make good choices and to repent for our bad ones.  
–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Why Does God Call John the Baptist and Other Nobodies?

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by New Ways Ministry’s Associate Director, Matthew Myers.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“Creator Confounds Critics by Calling Quirky Commoner.”  Perhaps that would be a good tabloid headline for today’s Gospel reading.  Let me explain why.
A depiction of John the Baptist

When I first read the passage from Luke, at first I really struggled to understand why the Gospel writer would list several prominent civil and religious leaders by name — Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas — before introducing John the Baptist.  How does their mention contribute to the story, if at all?  I grappled with this question until I had the idea to re-write the Gospel using people from today:

“In the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama,
when John Kerry was Secretary of State,
and Andrew Cuomo was governor of New York,
and Chris Christie the governor of New Jersey,
during the papacy of Francis,
the word of God came to Jane Doe in an Iowa cornfield.”
BAM!  I get it now.  God could have spoken to all kinds of powerful and influential people in my reimagined narrative — the President and Pope included! — but instead chose to talk with a nobody.  Of all the high and mighty people who have wealth, power, and fame — the very things we often associate with “importance” in this world  — God chose to talk with a nobody, a common person like you or me who enjoys none of those things.  And so it was that God spoke with John the Baptist, a nobody.
I admire John the Baptist.  He was a nobody who felt he had a mission from God to preach the forgiveness of sins. And so he did it.  John traveled “throughout the whole region of the Jordan” and baptized everyone who asked for it. He had great initiative, and that’s why I like him.
Over the years, I have met a lot of wonderful people who felt that God was pulling at their hearts to do something for LGBT justice in our church.  And like John the Baptist, they took action!  They may have felt called to preach a message of love and acceptance through social media, to reach out to their local bishop, to start an LGBT ministry at their parish, or any number of other outstanding and inspirational things.  They felt called, and they did something!
I admire these people with all my heart because they didn’t wait for someone else to take action–even if they felt like nobodies.  Even if they were “nobodies.” They didn’t wait for their bishop or their pastor to do it.  They just did what they felt God was moving them to do.  What is more simple or more beautiful than that?
So, during this Advent season, I invite you to do something good.  Do anything.  God is speaking to you — along with the rest of us “nobodies” — to do the work of building God’s reign on earth.  Just start now.  Just do it.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

Standing Erect in the Face of Catastrophes—Cosmic and Otherwise

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by New Ways Ministry’s Associate Director, Matthew Myers.  The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Advent are Jeremiah 33:1416; Psalm 25:4-5,8-10,14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel sets a pretty bleak scene.  Cosmic catastrophe.  War on earth.  Oceans in turmoil.  People dying of fright.  It sounds like a disaster flick worthy of Hollywood.  

To be honest, most interpretations of this Gospel reading are lost on me.  I harbor polite but thoroughly disinterested feelings toward the Second Coming of Jesus and the need for apocalyptic vigilance; these things do not offer much direction or inspiration for my daily life.  But the kernel of this reading with profound meaning for me is the seemingly innocuous exhortation for Christians to “stand erect and raise [their] heads” in spite of awful circumstances.  

What type of person can stand tall during terrible adversity, even when others shrink away?  A person with integrity. Such a person knows what they are for and what they are against — and has the courage to consistently speak and act in accordance with these values.  You can trust a person with integrity because they do what they believe and believe what they do.  In other words, what you see is what you get.  That type of wholeness — indeed, of holiness — gives a person strength and courage, even in the dire straits of today’s Gospel reading, when others readily die of fright.  

What does a person with integrity look like in real life?  Frank Mugisha is a Catholic LGBT rights activist who in 2014 said, “I am a gay man. I am also Ugandan. There is nothing un-African about me.”  Mugisha risks life and limb to speak the truth about his sexual orientation in a hostile culture.  He could have made innumerable (and understandable) excuses to remain in the closet and preserve both his privacy and his safety.  But as a person of integrity, Mugisha chooses to advocate for his own rights and the rights of all LGBT Africans; he has the courage to stand tall, be seen, and speak his truth to church and state because to do otherwise would be a violation of himself and his values.  I think Frank Mugisha hears and is responding prophetically to the Gospel writer’s call to “stand erect and raise your heads.”

In perhaps less dramatic circumstances than Mugisha, what does this call to integrity mean to us?   Most LGBT people have struggled intensely to define their identity (e.g. Am I gay? What is my gender?) and their values (e.g. Should I come out to my loved ones? Should I publicly transition my gender?) in a less than welcoming church and society.  Fortunately, many  of these same LGBT people have chosen to stand tall, be seen, and speak their truth publicly.  We must continue their work by choosing to be people of integrity, by sharing our stories, and by remaining faithful to our values.  In this way,  I believe LGBT people can cultivate the gifts of honesty and wholeness in our Catholic faith communities — by bringing what is hidden into the light, by encouraging each person to grapple with the hard questions of life.  

As we begin this Advent season, each of us receives a call to stand tall and be seen for who we are.  May we persevere in our efforts and, as the Psalmist writes today, “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

When Advent Hopes Collide with Christmas Surprises

We are on the brink of Christmas. Advent is coming to a close.  How has this season of expectation, preparation, and hope been for you? For me, it has been a bit of a roller-coaster.

After an autumn of lots of traveling for New Ways Ministry, I was preparing for a rare—nay, unprecedented—month-long vacation, visiting India and Bangladesh with a Franciscan friend of mine. He used to minister there educating Franciscan novices and leaders, and we were going to visit his friends.  Christmas would be spent in a contemplative Poor Clare convent in the hills of Bangladesh.  Just what I needed at the end of an extremely hectic year. Pure bliss.

So, my Advent was filled with travel preparations and expectations:  visa applications, immunizations, finding the right electrical adapters, worrying about wi-fi connections and cell phone service.

And then it ended.  A serious, unexpected health problem in the family of my traveling companion arose just two weeks before our scheduled departure.  We would have to postpone, perhaps until the spring, perhaps indefinitely.  Sadness and disappointment were mixed, I must admit, with a bit of selfish relief that I could stop the worried and frenzied travel preparations, and that I now had some unexpected “found time.”

Well, the “found time” evaporated very quickly.  I soon realized I now had to “shift gears” and start Christmas preparations.  Gifts that I had planned on buying in Asia, now had to be bought at the local mall. Christmas cards needed to be filled out and mailed.  Decorations had to come down from the attic. And what about baking the Christmas cookies?   What I usually rush to do in four weeks now was going to have to be done in two.

Needless to say, not everything got done.

But enough about my tale of woe.   The point is that I learned an Advent lesson from this experience which I think might be pertinent for those Catholics who work for LGBT equality and justice.

Advent is a time of expectation, preparation, and hope.  But what we expect, prepare, and hope for may not arrive as we have planned it.  And it may not arrive on our schedule. God works in mysterious ways, and, often, in more mysterious time frames.  I’ve learned that it is important to expect, prepare, and hope, but that we also need to be open to surprise.

That was my greatest lesson from all of 2014.  Many of us had great hopes for the October synod on marriage and family.  We spent months in anticipation, buoyed by Pope Francis’ positive messages signaling openness to change, by the Vatican’s call for greater discussion by the entire church, and by greater openness from bishops around the world to recognizing the positive gifts of lesbian and gay couples.

We prayed and prepared and hoped.  And as the synod opened, we started hearing positive messages from participants and observers.  And then came the mid-term report, with its strongly worded affirmations of lesbian and gay people.  Our hopes, it seemed, were being realized. I even toyed with the idea that the work of Catholic LGBT advocacy would soon be waning, that our hopes and dreams were now being realized at last.

Then the final report came out, and we found ourselves in the same position that we had always been in.  No positive message.  Was all the expectation, preparation, and hope for naught?

One of my favorite spiritual writers, José Antonio Pagola, in a homily on the fourth Sunday of Advent in his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospel, Year B, notes that the coming of Jesus was also seen as a disappointment for many.  Born in the backwater of Bethlehem, in a stable, in the midst of Roman occupation, to unknown, powerless parents, Jesus certainly did not have any of the earmarks of a Messiah that Israel expected.

But God works in mysterious ways.  And on a mysterious time schedule.  Our expectations, preparations, and hopes are never in vain.  They just may not receive their fruition in the way we expect them and in the time that we expect them.  We have another synod, a more definitive one coming up in November 2015.  And we need to work and pray with the hope that that one will be better than this past year’s.

More importantly, we must learn to be surprised by God.  Isn’t surprise what our secular tradition of Christmas gift-giving and even decorations are all about? Advent is about expectation, preparation, and hope, but Christmas is about surprise, about finding God, love, and joy in the most unexpected of places. Who knows what surprises God has in store for the 2015 synod?  I know that no one I know was prepared for the surprises that came at this past year’s meeting.

I won’t be in India and Bangladesh this Christmas season, and I don’t have all my decorations up, presents bought, or cookies baked.  But, nevertheless, I plan on being surprised, once again, as I always am, by the love of my family and friends, in ways that I never expect. I can’t wait to see what God has in store!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry





“Nothing will be impossible for God”

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 Fourth Sunday of Advent are 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Psalm 89: 2-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“Annunciation” by Alexander Ivanov

In Luke’s Gospel today, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in her home in Nazareth to tell her that she will bear a son, whom she should call Jesus, who will be called the Son of the Most High. Being a young woman of common sense, Mary asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

Two days ago, the Gospel reading from Luke was the story of another birth announcement. Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in Jerusalem as he was performing his priestly service of offering incense in the Temple sanctuary. Gabriel delivered the news that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, whom they were to call John. Zacharias, too, had common sense and he questioned Gabriel. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  For his intelligent probe for more explanation about this strange announcement, Zacharias was struck speechless until John’s birth.

Did you ever wonder about the unfairness in these two stories? Zacharias was punished, but Mary was not; yet both of them questioned Gabriel’s news and asked for some clarification. A (male) friend of mine suggested it was a biblical example of gender discrimination–this time the male being the object of prejudice. Naturally, I don’t think this is the point!

I’ve been puzzling over Gabriel’s change of behavior in the six months between the two announcements. Was Gabriel on a learning curve? Had he discovered that human beings have good judgment and perspicacity and that they ask sensible questions before making commitments? I like to think so.

I like to think that I’m on a learning curve like Gabriel, but it sure takes me more than six months to “get it.” In the early days of my LGBT ministry in the 1970s, my women religious superiors understood the need for the church to accept LGBT Catholics, but I was dubious about the rank and file sisters of my community, who were suspicious and sometimes antagonistic. But they, too, were on a learning curve so that, by the mid 1980s, LGBT ministry was proudly acknowledged by most of the sisters as a work of the community.

I experienced other learning curves too. In the 1990s, in my meetings with the Vatican Commission that examined my work, Fr. Bob Nugent and I were asked if we had written about same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage? Of course not! This was barely being discussed even within the LGBT community. We were writing about, and advocating for, non-discrimination and acceptance of the human dignity of LGBT people, not same-sex marriage. We were talking about jobs and civil rights and the recognition that LGBT people had expectations, longings, values, and ethics like heterosexuals. Same-sex marriage was an impossible dream in the 1990s, but in this century, the learning curve of U.S. Catholics about same-sex marriage has steadily escalated. In the last ten years, we have seen the majority of Catholics now supporting same-sex marriage.

With all the learning going on, it does seem that, as Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible for God.” Six months after he appeared to Zacharias, Gabriel got it right. Indeed, nothing is impossible with God! Gabriel’s parting message to Mary nourishes my hopes.

I hope and believe that one day all LGBT people will be welcomed by their parents, brothers, and sisters to family celebrations. Their families will feel proud of them, just as one day our gay priests and brothers and our lesbian nuns will not feel shamed into thinking that they make their communities “look bad” if they come out.

I hope and believe that one day LGBT people will not fear losing their jobs in parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions because those groups will have anti-discrimination policies based on performance, not on sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, or personal beliefs.

I hope and believe that one day my Church’s sexual theology will not be held hostage by procreation, but will hold up an ethic based on love and commitment.

When I ask myself, “How can this be?” I think of Gabriel’s learning curve and his last words, “Nothing will be impossible for God.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL

John the Baptist’s Humble Example for LGBT Folks

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 61:1-2, 10-11; Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

St. John the Baptist

I always imagined John the Baptist as a rather strident and coarse fellow, complete with his camel hair clothing, locust diet, apocalyptic message, and his uneasy relationship with authority (things didn’t end well with Herod).  I can’t imagine John being a person with whom I’d like to have coffee and a chat.  But, unpleasant or not, today’s Gospel presents John as a profoundly humble person who was deeply aware of his own identity and mission.  And I think we can learn a lot from him in this regard.

John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher who became famous enough for the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to take notice and send priests to find and listen to him.  He was a celebrity.  So when the priests asked “Who are you?”, John demonstrated profound humility and integrity when he replied that he was not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, but simply a voice crying in the desert. John could have easily claimed the mantle of any of these very important persons and thereby increase his own celebrity among the people.  Can you imagine the flocks of would-be followers if he said (or even obliquely suggested) that he was Elijah or the Messiah? Perhaps that might have been a fleeting temptation for him.  But John chose to remain faithful to his own identity and to speak his own truth as he understood it.

I think John’s example to us, particularly for LGBT folks and those who advocate for them, is “I am my own person, with my own truth to proclaim in this world.  My story may be quite different from others,  but it is mine, and I must live it with integrity.”  Thomas Merton wrote a powerful reflection on this theme:

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree… The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like [God]… This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.”

We have many reasons to rejoice on this Third Advent Sunday, known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, not least of which is the mystery of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But I suggest we also take time to revel in our own uniqueness, the knowledge that each of us is utterly special in this world because no one can witness to God’s love in quite the same way.  Each of us can contribute to a more humane and compassionate world, not by living by the narratives of others, but by sharing our own unique stories, just as John the Baptist did.  By leading lives of integrity and openness, LGBT folks can give glory to God as only we can — and we should rejoice for the opportunity!

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry

John the Baptist As a Woman in a Red Dress

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 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85: 9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

“St. John the Baptist” by El Greco

The 2nd Sunday of Advent’s readings from Isaiah and the beginning of Mark’s gospel both call to mind John the Baptist, a central figure during this season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ. I have often thought that John the Baptist is a strange figure. He roams around the Judean countryside, wearing a leather belt and camel’s hair clothing, eating locusts and wild honey. I think that he must have seemed a little weird to the people of his day too. This peculiar figure had a message to preach, something the Judeans needed to hear.

I think of some of the odd people I know or meet. They seem strange to me because they don’t dress as I do, or think as I do, or respond as I do, but I feel sure they have a message I need to hear, just like I need to hear John the Baptist’s message. I believe God has inserted them into my life for a good reason. This Advent I resolved to look again at people I may label strange and to ask myself “How are they ‘John the Baptist’ for me? What message or lesson do they have for me?”

I shared this idea of my “strange John the Baptist” with a small Eucharistic community with whom I regularly worship on Wednesday evenings. Bob, one of the group, told us about his visits to a shelter where he helps to serve meals to some of the city’s homeless. Recently, while handing out some sandwiches for lunch, he saw, across the room, a white-haired woman in a new and exquisite red dress. Strange, he thought. She was not one of the servers, but she did not look like the typical person he encountered in the shelter’s lunch line. As he approached her, he heard her muttering indistinguishable syllables over and over, under her breath, in a rhythmic pattern. Whirling around in circles and making a humming sound, she looked like a big beautiful top, spinning in a corner of the lunchroom.

Here was a John the Baptist figure, not in a leather belt and camel’s hair clothing, but in an attractive red frock with neat white hair. What prophetic message was she delivering?

After the liturgy I thought much about Bob’s John the Baptist figure. The woman appeared lovely in her external world, but her inner life was bewildered and confused. I think that I am like that red-robed woman when my interior and exterior lives are not in harmony. When at times I appear to be kind and loving, but inwardly resent others’ good fortune because it isn’t mine, I hope I think of the woman in the red dress.

Many of us rejoice that we now have a pope who wants to welcome LGBT people into the Church, but inwardly some may grumble that the official teaching on sexuality has not changed. We forget that Pope Francis said, in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, that we are not to be “obsessed” with a multitude of doctrines and that we should avoid a “preoccupation” with doctrine (par. 35 and 94). Rather our goal, he said, is to “concentrate on the essentials,” on the heart of the Gospel or the basic core, which is “the saving love of God” (par. 35 and 36). Doctrines, really, are not essential to Christianity. Jesus had no doctrines, only the law of love.

Perhaps we can outwardly express some sympathy for conservative Catholics who feel lost, rudderless, and insecure because the Church is now experiencing climate change at the highest Vatican level; but secretly we might feel some amusement or glee when we read that conservative bloggers are talking about schism. We pride ourselves on being Vatican II Catholics, yet we forget that Vatican II taught that unity does not mean uniformity. Catholics can understand the Church differently, but we are all part of the same Church in Christ. We are many branches, but we are all rooted in the one vine, which is Christ.

During this Advent season, let’s think of the strange John the Baptists in our lives who have a constructive and vital message to bring us. Who are the women in stunning red dresses, muttering gibberish, who are calling us to resolve the dissonance between our interior and exterior lives?

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry