Beyond Being the Prodigal Child, We are Parent and Sibling, Too

 

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“The Prodigal Son Returns” by Soichi Watanabe

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9A, 10-12; Psalm 34: 2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

The Prodigal Child is among Scripture’s most well-known parables. In today’s liturgy, its rich themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are enhanced by the readings from the book of Joshua  and 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with which it is paired.

Interpretations generally position the reader as the wayward child returned to the parent, hinting that we are lost disciples returned to God’s loving embrace. This applies to our interpersonal relationships when we find ourselves welcomed back into families and communities which we may have left

But what if we position ourselves as the parent, or even the elder sibling? Doing so complicates a calming parable, raising questions for us when we would rather bask in being the prodigal child welcomed home and celebrated.

For instance, if we are the parent, we have to ask ourselves if we run to meet those who have abandoned and even harmed us? Are we “filled with compassion” by their presence? Do we unreservedly organize a celebration when someone accepts returns after years of exile? As people existing at the church’s margins who have experienced the very real exclusion and  harm which some church ministers can inflict, is our response to other excluded people like the parent in this parable?

If we picture ourselves as the elder sibling, are we ready to acknowledge that we want some people in our lives to remain absent and even figuratively dead? Are we envious when others receive greater love or care in certain moments? When reconciliation happens in our church, would we rather the divisions and wounds remain because we have adjusted to them? Have we so rooted ourselves and our identities at the margins that progress becomes unwelcome?

Asking myself these questions raises truths I would rather ignore. I have to admit that that at times I have not wanted to forgive, never mind to celebrate, certain people who have passed through my life. I am comforted that seeking LGBT justice in the Catholic Church seems to be stable employment, given the depth of institutional and cultural homophobia in our community. I would rather be the prodigal child, welcomed and held, celebrated and held up, than practice the parent’s boundless compassion or admit the darkness I share with the elder sibling.

Thankfully, the lectionary sets this parable of the Prodigal Child within a context. The first two readings are reminders of that God fulfills promises. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites celebrate the Passover as their forty years of wandering comes to an end. The unceasing manna which had sustained them dries up. God kept God’s promise. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the new creation brought about by God through Christ. Again, God kept God’s promise.

This context allows us to root ourselves in God, confident that God keeps the promise made by Jesus to be with us always. Knowing that God’s grace is operative in our lives, we know that when we do not love boundlessly or are ready to face our dark sides, we do not do so alone. We have God’s grace and we have one another, ambassadors of Christ in Pauline language, to mediate that grace to us. Lent is a time for conversion. My prayer today is that we may all come to know we are loved as the Prodigal Child, to know we must love as the parent, and to know that to love and be loved we must wrestle with our darkness as the elder sibling.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Burning Bushes, Barren Fig Trees, and Us

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalm 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; and Luke 13:1-9. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Problematic vegetation is the dominant imagery in today’s Scripture readings.  In the first reading, the well-known image of the burning bush, a plant on fire but not destroyed.  In the gospel passage, we hear of a fig tree which just won’t produce fruit and face the threat of being cut down. God is obviously a pretty showy and aggressive landscaper!

One theory (and there are many) about the symbolism of the burning bush that I have read is that it is a symbol of God’s justice and mercy.   The Bible often refers to God’s justice as an all-consuming power, but the fact that in this case the power is revealed but does not consume is taken to mean that God’s justice includes mercy.  This theory fits with the rest of the passage, which describes God’s willingness to show mercy to the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt:

“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I like this God.  This is a God who hears prayers and answers them as people expect they should be answered.  If you are someone who works for justice for LGBT people, this is probably the kind of God you hope to one day meet and experience–a God who acts justly and mercifully to people who are treated oppressively.

But what about the image of God in the gospel passage?  The image of God in the parable that Jesus tells is not as re-assuring as this previous image.  The Gospel image, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be an image of a God who is unforgiving of failure and impatient for results.  I’m glad I’m not a fig tree.

Wait. Maybe I am one.

I think the introduction to this parable contains some important guides for understanding the behavior of the orchard owner (God) in the parable.  In the first part of the reading, Jesus is upbraiding his followers for a behavior which I think is all-too-common among us humans, especially us humans who claim to have faith.  They have been badgering him with questions about why others have suffered calamities, hoping that the answer will be that these people who suffered were being punished for their sins.  And, of course, the implication of that answer is that those asking the question, who have not suffered, have obviously not been judged by God as sinners, allowing them to be self-satisfied.

Jesus will have none of it.  His answer–terrifyingly direct–is:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

This seems to be such an important message for Jesus, that he repeats it almost verbatim.  God doesn’t punish people because of sin. God cannot be anything but just and merciful, kind and gracious, loving and forgiving, as today’s Psalm reminds us. But one thing God doesn’t like very much is people who feel self-satisfied and don’t repent.  God is not too fond of people who grumble about the sinfulness of others rather than focusing on repenting of their own sins.  The second reading warns us:

“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illustrate God’s opportunities for us to repent, not a thirst for vengeance.  God wants the fig tree to grow and produce fruit. God gives it plenty of times (three years) and then offers a fourth year extension filled with care and fertilizer.  But if the fig tree does not cooperate, is that God’s responsibility?

I know that in my own work to promote justice for LGBT Catholics, I can often fall into the trap of self-satisfaction. We’re the good guys! Aren’t we?  Or are we?  Do we sometimes feel that because we think we are right that God is going to help us more–and in addition, throw in the smiting of those who oppose us, who we too-often think of as greater sinners than we are?  Gulp.  I’m afraid to answer those questions.

We need to do our work for LGBT justice in a spirit of humility, avoiding the trap of being so convinced of our own rightness that we start seeing those who oppose us as sinners, while we are on the side of the angels.

Our task is to rely on God and to repent of our own sins.  Our task is to rely on God’s justice and mercy to save us, not our own efforts. Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Bishop’s Letter of Apology Is a Model for Catholic Reconciliation

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Bishop Mitchell Rozanski

In a pastoral letter released Ash Wednesday, a Catholic bishop apologized to those hurt and alienated by the Catholic Church, including lesbian and gay people.

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed his Lenten message to those outside the church, as well as the diocese’s Catholics. Writing about the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway, the bishop said he should “first apologize and ask your forgiveness” before asking anything of the letter’s audience. Among those to whom Rozanski apologized are:

“[Those] who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed. The reasons here can vary, but key among them are race and cultural differences, a sense of gender inequality as well as sexual orientation.”

The bishop admitted that many Catholics hurt “from the pain caused by our past failings as a diocese, as well as the grievous actions of some who ministered in our Church.” Rozanski apologized, too, to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the first formal apology from the diocese, and those whose parishes were closed during recent consolidations.

Bishop Rozanski’s apology to lesbian and gay people is progress, particularly when one considers that he harshly criticized marriage equality in August 2014. As a newly appointed bishop in Massachusetts, which legalized equal marriage a decade before, Rozanski told a reporter that marriage equality contributed to society’s disintegration like crime and substance abuse.

So how do we evaluate Bishop Rozanski’s apology?

Admission that intense and painful marginalization have been experienced by LGBT Catholics, their families, and many others in the church, is a first step too many Catholic leaders cannot or will not make. In that sense, this is firm progress upon which bridges can be built and reconciliation can occur.

But in another sense, this apology is only a first step. Will Bishop Rozanski now encourage LGBT parish ministries? Will churches host educational workshops on gender identity issues? Will the bishop meet with LGBT Catholics and hear their stories?  Will he still work against equality for LGBT people in the civil arena as he has done in the past? If the letter is not backed by concrete actions which restore right relationships and pursue reconciliation, the apology will become ring hollow.

There is a third angle, however, and it is what I find most notable about this letter. Michael O’Loughlin of Crux explained:

“The letter’s tone was dictated by a questionnaire the Diocese issued last fall, which drew over 3,000 responses from both current parishioners and people outside the Church, Rozanski said. Many responses evinced concerns about the Church, but also a desire to reconnect with the Catholic faith, according to Rozanski. . .

“The survey also included comments from LGBT Catholics who are committed to their faith but feel alienated by the Church’s long-running battle against extending legal recognition for same-sex marriage. . .The church’s position has not changed, Rozanski said, but he included welcoming language in the pastoral letter in the hopes of winning back those Catholics.”

Rozanski admitted there is “much truth to these honest reflections” submitted to the survey, quoting several at length in his letter, including this from one respondent:

” ‘The gay community feels that they aren’t welcome. They don’t want to espouse another religion; therefore, they don’t attend church at all. Hopefully, a special outreach could be done to them.’ “

Refreshingly, Rozanski also acknowledged that many efforts for the New Evangelization are not substantive renewals but stylistic gimmicks. When marginalized Catholics return, they find nothing really changed and given this, the bishop concluded:

“Understandably this is a daunting task, but one we must challenge ourselves to undertake. We must make our parish communities places where people want to worship, meet Jesus, and form community. We must put the love of God foremost in all our efforts. We must walk beyond our parish boundaries, without fear, to demonstrate the faith we celebrate in liturgy takes form in the reality of the world around us.”

This effort of reaching out really is challenging if done correctly. Dialogue demands all parties be vulnerable, that they be open to receiving criticism and acting upon that criticism. Catholic officials and even local communities are frequently unwilling to do this.

But the model employed in this letter’s formation — of soliciting honest input from local Catholics, including those who are alienated or no longer practicing and then responding to it — is a way forward. It is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ pastoral style. It is a model that every bishop should replicate in their dioceses: listening, discerning, apologizing, responding.

Lent is the perfect time to repent and turn away from sin, like the sins of exclusion and prejudice. May these forty days lead more bishops to act like Bishop Rozanski — and may there be more letters like his come next Ash Wednesday–and before then, too–as fruits of this Year of Mercy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

It’s Ash Wednesday: Time to Indulge!

Today’s Ash Wednesday.  Wait! What?  Already?  I still have to put some boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic.

Lent begins early this year–probably about the earliest that it can be.  But, truth be told, Lent always kind of creeps up on me. I never seem ready to begin 40 days of fasting, prayer, and renewing my relationship with God.

Of course, my Lenten resolutions, like my New Year resolutions, end up having a very short life span. It’s hard to maintain any sort of consistent practice–whether it be fasting, doing charity, giving alms, or simply praying more–for 40 consecutive days.

This year, though, I have a little bit of a different attitude towards Lent, sparked by last Sunday’s Gospel reading. It was the story of the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5: 1-11).  Jesus instructs the weary fisherman, including Peter, to continue fishing though they had not caught anything for many hours. Their reward is an overabundant catch of fish.  Peter’s response is a very human one:  he feels that Jesus’ gift of the great catch is not something he deserves because he is a sinner.

I often feel like Peter did.  I never understand why God continues to be so good to me when I have so many faults and do so much that is wrong.  Like many people, I often wonder at the way God works in the world and why so much suffering and struggle have to happen for people to find God in their lives.  When I read this gospel story, I think of how mysteriously God acts in the opposite direction, too:  God is always sending out gifts and graces to people like me who don’t deserve them.

This message is resonating particularly strongly with me this year, as our Church celebrates the Jubilee of Mercy.  It seems to me that one of the messages of this year is that God kind of overdoes it when it comes to lavishing mercy upon humanity.  Unfortunately, our response to that can sometimes be guilt.  God is like the person who gives you expensive jewelry for Christmas when your present is a box of candy.  The dynamic creates an awkward feeling inside.

So, here’s a suggestion for Lent.  Instead of giving up something, indulge.  So, instead of giving up chocolate, allow yourself to indulge in healthy food and snacks.  Instead of sacrificing by doing volunteer work at a soup kitchen, allow yourself to be open to the gifts and lessons the poor can teach you when you are engaged in charitable work.  Instead of forcing yourself to pray every day, allow yourself a half-hour to just be quiet with God and relax in Divine Love.  God is lavishing mercy on us in a special way this year. Let’s learn to accept it and enjoy it.

This kind of exercise is especially helpful for folks who advocate for LGBT equality.  I think that we get so used to the challenge and hardship of the work, that we forget to accept the victories joyfully. I know that even more than seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, I’m still having to remind myself that marriage is now a legal right for all.  I’m reminded of a quip a friend once told me:  “Just because you work for justice doesn’t mean you always lose.”

I hope that by celebrating God’s mercy this Lent, by allowing myself to receive and accept that mercy better, maybe I’ll help myself grow out of the attitude that nothing is really changing and start to see and appreciate the small miracles that abound around me each day.

If you read or listen to the lectionary readings in the coming weeks, you will see that Lent is a feast of God’s mercy.  Let’s indulge–and overindulge–in this feast!

Happy Lent!

–Francis DeBernardo

Rainbows, Deserts, Wild Beasts, and Angels

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

“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

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