Rainbows, Deserts, Wild Beasts, and Angels

February 22, 2015

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Lent are: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1:12-15.   You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

I have always liked that the rainbow flag is a strong symbol of LGBT equality and justice. It is such a colorful, happy symbol.  And it is strongly connected to how Christians view the symbolic power of the rainbow. In today’s first reading, God tells Noah that the rainbow will serve as the symbol of God’s never-ending love for us.  God says:

“I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings.”

Rainbows help me to remember that no matter what hardship or tragedy or injustice we experience, God will be with us, loving us, and helping us find new ways to continue in spite of negative forces.

Today’s gospel reading has a similar message.  It is a short passage, only three verses long, but filled with an important message.  In two sentences, St. Mark packs a profound theological lesson:

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”

In his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus, Year B, José Pagola, one of my favorite Scripture interpreters, provides the following insight into these lines:

“According to the evangelist, ‘the Spirit sent him out into the desert.”  He doesn’t go on his own initiative.  The Spirit sends him out until he finds himself in the desert. Success is not going to come easily to him. Rather, trials, insecurity, and dangers await him. But the desert is at the same time the best place to listen to the voice of God in silence and solitude. . . .

“Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. . . . He will appear no more in the whole Gospel of Mark, but Jesus sees him in all those who want to lead him astray from his mission, including Peter.

“The brief account finishes with two strongly contrasting images: Jesus ‘was among wild animals,’ but ‘angels attended to him.’  The wild animals, the most dangerous in all creation, evoke the dangers that will always threaten Jesus and his plan.  Angels, the best beings in creation, evoke the nearness of God who blesses, takes care of, and protects Jesus and his mission.”

If you are an LGBT person or someone who works for LGBT equality, then you are most likely someone who has great familiarity with being in the desert.  Work for justice and equality is often a painful, desolate, discouraging experience, and one where temptations to give up, give in, or just becomes cynical and bitter abound.

I take hope from Pagola’s reading of this passage, however. Like all people, I have experienced “the desert” several times in my life.  I usually think of it as a negative experience, but Pagola’s interpretation reminds me that the desert can be a place not just of isolation, suffering, and temptation, but a place where God speaks to us most intimately.  It’s a place where we can find our deepest, truest selves.  A place where we can experience God’s care even though we may feel that we are being attacked.

I’ve been working in LGBT ministry and advocacy for over 20 years.  While I’ve seen some remarkable advances both in civil society and the church, it can also sometimes feel like the desert as I ask “How long, O God, before justice is made real?”   What I need to do is to turn that experience around.  Instead of focusing on what is not happening, I should instead focus on what God is doing for me in this desert time, how I am growing personally, how I am meeting incredible people, and how God is building something new–usually something so new that I often don’t recognize it.

While LGBT equality is not a reality in the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the desert experiences I’ve had because they have helped me see that God is working in mysterious ways in my life and in the life of the Church.  While we still have much work to do to educate the hierarchy, in the past 40 years, we have seen incredible growth in support from the laity.  More importantly, we have seen that in the desert, the laity have had to become more mature Christians than they might otherwise have been.  Sometimes the exile or desert experience that progressive Catholics have felt over the past few years has forced them to rely on prayer, community, and the development of their individual consciences.  In doing so, they have actually formed the model of the church that they want to see.  Without the desert experience, this would not have happened.

The rainbow is a wonderful sign of God’s love, and it is easy to see how its beauty and diversity of color symbolize divine love.  I think we also have to start to see that the desert can also be a sign of God’s love, if we look at it as an opportunity for listening to God’s word more intimately.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


For Ash Wednesday: How to Pray with St. Francis and St. Clare

February 18, 2015

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

As I joined other New Ways Ministry pilgrims in Assisi a couple of days ago to visit the holy sites associated with Saints Francis and Clare, I easily imagined St. Francis singing the Psalmist’s words.

St. Clare and St. Francis

The rolling hills and quiet streets and green olive trees seem to sing along in praise to their Creator. But what compels this sense of wonder and awe? Prayer and penance.

Prayer and penance permeated the lives of Francis and Clare. My first reaction to this statement is that they must have led terribly dull and depressing lives. However, all the historical sources show the exact opposite – that Francis and Clare were joy-filled and pleasant people. So, perhaps I need to change my understanding of prayer and penance if I am to accept that they are pathways to joy.

I look to Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio for help. Delio, an awesome interpeter of the Franciscan tradition, writes the following about prayer:

“Prayer is the relationship with God which opens the eyes of believers to the sanctity of life — from earthworms to humans, to quarks to stars. Everything that exists reflects the goodness of God. Prayer is the breath of the Holy Spirit within us that opens our eyes to the divine good which saturates our world.”

Delio also writes the following about penance:

“The wisdom of Francis makes us realize that God loves us in our incomplete humanity even though we are always running away trying to rid ourselves of defects, wounds and brokenness. If we could only see that God is there in the cracks of our splintered human lives we would already be healed.”

During this Lenten season, I am going to try my best to take Sr. Ilia’s words to heart.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Bringing Life Out of What Seems Lifeless

April 6, 2014

Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder. The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; 1-8; Romans 8:8-11,; John 11:1-45.

Icon of Lazarus’ Rising from the Dead

A theme throughout the Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is that God can bring life out of what seems lifeless. The first reading from Ezekiel clearly teaches this lesson when it says, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” Paul too, in his Epistle to the Romans, says that, if the Spirit dwells in us, the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. The Gospel is the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. All three readings tell us that God indeed can bring life out of what seems lifeless.

I want to consider the third reading in particular because I am drawn to the character of Martha. I like Martha. She’s practical and sensible. She’s a doer, an activist. And she speaks her mind.

Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill, it took him two days to get his act together and move on down to Bethany before he raised him from the dead. Why so slow?

When she heard Jesus was coming, Martha acted. She hurried from Bethany to meet him along the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You can hear the gentle rebuke in Martha’s voice. She might as well have said, “Thanks, Lord, for coming, but aren’t you a little late?”

When Jesus asked the assembled folks to take away the stone from the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, Martha matter-of-factly cried out, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”

How often do we feel like Martha? “God, if you had given me a good home background when I was growing up, I wouldn’t be in this stinking mess I’m in now.” “If I had better teachers, I would have gotten better grades.” “If you hadn’t made me gay, my life would be so much easier.”

Yes, God, I feel your loving presence now that I sit comfortably in my easy chair with my cat on my lap and sipping my cup of tea, but where were you when I needed your help? Where were you when I was trying to figure out who I was and where I was meant to be? Where were you when I was in a grave of sorrow? Where were you when I felt angry or down in the dumps, or impatient or fearful?

To Martha and to us, Jesus says, “Even though you did not recognize me in the turmoil and the crises, I was there. I am with you all the time. Even when you feel down, I can pull you up to life.

“When you think I am late, I am already there, waiting for you to see me, to call me, to talk with me. I can lift you up to life, even when you have hit rock bottom with self-pity or fear. I can haul you up out of any sinfulness or cruelty or foolishness.

“Just talk with me. Come and waste some time with me. I can bring life out of what seems lifeless.”

–Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Thirsting for Living Water to Recognize Christ in Others

March 23, 2014

Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections 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 Lent are Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42.

Samaritan Woman at the Well, by He Qi, China
http://www.heqigallery.com

The Gospel for the third Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman as she came to draw water from Jacob’s well. After their extended conversation, the woman acknowledged that Jesus is a prophet and wondered if He is the Christ. She goes into the town of Sychar to tell the townspeople about this amazing person she has just met. Many come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, because of the woman’s testimony, but others believe because of their personal encounter with Him.

Sometimes I just wonder… What if I were that Samaritan woman and I had a personal encounter with Christ? Would I recognize him?

I fancy myself meeting Pope Francis, perhaps on one of his alleged nightly walks among the poor of Rome. Yes, surely I would recognize Christ in him.

I see Christ in Pope Francis because he celebrated his birthday with homeless men and he embraces children, even if they are stricken with a deformity. I saw his compassion when a murdered transgender person was found along the tracks of Rome’s railroad station. Her family would not claim the body, but she was buried in Francis’ Jesuit church in Rome. Yes, I see Christ in Pope Francis because his actions remind me of Christ. But what about others?

What about those I find unattractive or repulsive or those I don’t admire? Where is Christ in them? When someone gets on my nerves or another dominates conversations, how can I recognize Christ in them? When the wealthy fail to understand that they are robbing the poor if they do not share their wealth, or when those in charge of Catholic institutions fire lesbian or gay personnel when they marry the person they love, how can I recognize Christ in them?

At those pearly gates, I will probably ask Jesus, “When did I see you poor or deformed or transgender or annoying or failing in justice?” And he will answer, “As long as you did not see something worthwhile in the least of these, you did not see me.”

There must be something in them that God loves. I pray for the grace of patience and compassion to find that something that is worthwhile so that I may see the Christ in them.

I want to be like that Samaritan woman. I want my water jar to be filled with living water so that I may recognize the Christ.

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


Awkward Walks: The Transfiguration, Coming Out, and Pope Francis

March 16, 2014

Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections 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 Lent are  Genesis 12:1-4; 3:1-7; Psalm 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2Timothy 1: 8-10; Matthew 17:1-9.

The walk down Mount Tabor must have been awkward.

Scripture does not record what Peter, James, and John were thinking after the Transfiguration.  Perhaps they were edified by the mystical experience of God’s favor resting upon Jesus, alongside Moses and Elijah.  Or, more likely, I think they probably felt confused, frightened, and a bit distrustful of Jesus.  And that’s the real Transfiguration story – how the disciples struggled in their relationships with Jesus after the revelatory mountaintop experience – not the revelation itself.

Peter, James, and John ascended Mount Tabor with their own clear ideas of who Jesus was – friend, teacher, and fellow Galilean.  But now he’s suddenly different.  Whatever happened on that mountain, their perception of Jesus was changed in a profound way.  Jesus was still the same person as before the Transfiguration experience, but he was something more in their eyes as well — something which they had not known previously.

In their struggle to understand the Transfiguration, I wonder if the disciples felt a bit betrayed by Jesus, as if Jesus had intentionally withheld some big part of himself for all the time they had known him.  Maybe Peter, James, and John looked at Jesus and wondered with a certain sense of disbelief, “I thought I knew this guy.”  Perhaps they questioned, “Why didn’t he tell us sooner?” or “What else is he hiding from us?”  Or maybe, “Gee, this is more than I can handle.  I should go back to my fishing nets!”  These thoughts are why I imagine the walk down Mount Tabor was pretty awkward and filled with long silences.

I can think of two contemporary examples that illustrate transfiguration experiences – and the over-riding importance of a revelation’s impact on relationships compared to the revelation itself.

First, “coming out” by LGBT people to family and friends can be a transfiguration experience.  Disclosure of one’s own sexual orientation and/or true gender identity to loved ones is a big revelation.  However, it does not change the individual, but rather how others perceive and relate to them.  Like Peter, James, and John, family members and friends might experience feelings of confusion and mistrust.  They may experience similar questions as the disciples.  But, like the disciples, they must find ways to understand and incorporate this “coming out” revelation into their own perception of their loved one if the relationship is to continue.

Second, institutions can have transfiguration moments in the same way as individuals.  The first year of Francis’ papacy has been a transfiguration experience for me.  Pope Francis has revealed to me a new way of being pope that is profoundly different from his recent predecessors.  Now I find myself in the role of the apostles – afraid and distrustful – because I am not sure how to relate to this new Pope.  I love Pope Francis and want to be his cheerleader, but my negative experiences of previous popes have made me wary of religious authority figures.  It is taking me time to sort my own feelings between what I thought the papacy was and what Pope Francis is showing us it can be. 

The time following a transfiguration experience can be confusing and awkward – like the long walk of the disciples down Mount Tabor.  We may not be sure how to respond or how to relate to new revelations.  But it is important that we keep walking, keep talking, and remain open to see what happens next.    

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Entering Our Own Deserts of Temptation

March 9, 2014

Periodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections 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 Lent are  Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

           The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent tells the story about the temptations of Jesus in the desert. The wilderness is a classic place for confronting ourselves, a place where we analyze our motives, question our thoughts, desires, and behavior, and investigate our future. In the desert there are no roads or maps, just the time and space to know God and ourselves in a clearer way.

This is hard stuff. I don’t like to confront myself or question what I do or what I think, but if I want to grow closer to God and understand myself better, then Lent is a good time to do it.

Like Jesus, I find that I am often tempted to turn stone into loaves of bread–bread that is delicious, sweet-smelling, and good. I am tempted to reject the stone that is hard and tough and inflexible. I am tempted to love the bread and not the stone. I like those people who are “bread,” not the “stone” people. I like the people who agree with me about LGBT issues, not the stone people who need conversion to justice. But Jesus is asking me to love the stone people too. This is hard stuff.

Like Jesus, I am too often tempted to throw myself down from the pinnacle of the temple of life into the depths of work, expecting that God will catch me and take care of my emotional and social needs. At other times, I’m tempted to throw myself down into the pit of comfort and avoidance of responsibilities I don’t like or that feel too challenging, expecting that God will somehow see that it all gets done. I think Jesus is asking me to stay on the pinnacle of the temple of common sense and find some balance in my life. More hard stuff.

Like Jesus, I have been tempted to possess all the kingdoms of this world by having the good opinion of others. How crucial is the desire to be loved and respected, to be understood and thought well of, especially by those I care about. These are the kingdoms I desire. But Jesus is asking me not to pay homage to these human kingdoms for “God alone shall you worship and God alone shall you serve.” To believe that God’s boundless love and joy will fill me when I’m misunderstood and rejected—very hard stuff.

As we begin this Lenten journey, the lesson of the desert seems clear. Jesus went into the desert to know himself and his God better. He did not let temptations come between him and his God.

What are your stones, your temple pinnacles, your worldly kingdoms? What temptations do you find in your Lenten wilderness that will help you know yourself and God better?

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry


What Are You Giving Up?

March 5, 2014

LentPeriodically in Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.

“What are you giving up?” 

I know Lent is approaching when I start to hear this question. Even a couple of my non-Catholic friends ask me. I usually offer some vague non-committal response because, like my New Year’s resolutions, I don’t like it when other people notice when I inevitably depart from my Lenten intentions. But each year I give up something nonetheless.

I was taught that giving up something during Lent brought me closer to God by sharing in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. If I didn’t feel a bit deprived, then it wasn’t working. So, this year. I intended to forgo coffee, which is an admirable sacrifice for a guy with a Starbucks monkey on his back. I was planning to reap the spiritual fruits of my sacrifice because I could unite my (admittedly very minor) suffering with that of Christ. How noble! But now that Ash Wednesday is here, I’m starting to think that I might have missed the mark. Let me explain.

I recently read an article by Fr. Joseph Donders, who paraphrased St. Augustine on fasting: “Don’t believe that fasting suffices. Fasting punishes you, but it does not restore your brother… How many poor people could be nourished by the meal you did not take today?” Perhaps my original understanding of Lenten sacrifice was a bit self-centered and more navel-gazing than anything. It was all about “me and Jesus” rather than “me, Jesus, and my neighbor.” Giving something up for Lent is not an end in itself; rather, it should readily redirect my attention from myself toward others.

Likewise, St. John Chrysostom offers this insight: “Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him.” The primary beneficiary of my Lenten sacrifice should not be myself, but my neighbor in need. Self-denial frees my mind and my resources. What money or time I do not spend on myself, I need to spend for the benefit of others. And that’s the crux of the issue – giving something up during Lent requires me not only to think about the needs of others, but to do something to meet those needs.

Most recently, Pope Francis in his Lenten message emphasizes the connection between self-denial and charitable outreach: “We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.” Lent rescues me from myself and frees me to think about others – particularly those who suffer from poverty. From now onward, perhaps I will change the annual Lenten question from “What am I giving up?” to “How can I share with my neighbors in need?” I think the latter question more accurately reflects what we are called by the Gospel to do each Lent. I’m still going to give up coffee for Lent, but not quite for the same reasons as when I started. I hope your Lenten season is filled with many spiritual gifts – and perhaps you might join me in asking, “How can I share with my neighbors in need?”

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


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