The Wolf and the Lamb: Coming Out and the Promises of Advent

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  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.

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John Winslow

Today’s reflection is from John Winslow, a former Jesuit Volunteer and current M. Div. student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

In Advent, we do not only reflect on the coming of Christ in the Incarnation as a historical moment but also as a contemporary reality. We reflect on how Christ is being made manifest to us and for us in the present moment.

We hear today, in a passage from the prophet Isaiah, that the “wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,” that “the leopard shall lie down the kid;” and that “the calf and young lion shall browse together.” We hear the message that a relationship paradigm based on a never-ending cycle of violence and exploitation will end. Christ’s coming undoes one of nature’s most fundamental relationships: that of predator and prey. In Christ, the life of one will no longer depend upon the death of another. In Christ, all of creation “shall be glorious.”

As LGBTQ Catholics, the relationship between the wolf and the lamb is one we know intimately. Growing up, the only feeling I associated with my sexuality was fear: overwhelming, mind-numbing, constant fear. It was closer to me than my bones. It was woven into every word I spoke, like a second language I never knew I was learning but woke up speaking fluently one day.

As LGBTQ Catholics, we often feel pulled in at least two different directions. We do not fit neatly into any of the boxes or categories that contemporary society has created for us. To those who support our God-given LGBTQ identities, our Catholicism is often seen as backward and inexorably tied to cultural conservatism. Meanwhile, our LGBTQ identities are often demeaned and demonized by our faith communities – sometimes the very faith communities that raised us.

And the struggle is not simply instigated by groups external to ourselves. For many of us, the struggle is also a constant, exhausting war of self-attrition: sometimes feeling at peace with ourselves as queer, and sometimes feeling at peace with ourselves as Catholic, but rarely feeling completely at peace with both.

For many people – especially those in the LGBTQ community – the idea that a Roman Catholic priest would somehow be anything other than condemning of my sexuality, much less actually compassionate and helpful, is baffling. Most people laugh when I tell them that the best coming out advice I ever received was from a priest. To be fair, I, too, never imagined I would say, “I came out to my family on Holy Thursday via email because a priest told me to.”

And yet, it is true. I would never have come out without the ongoing love, support, and counsel of many Catholics – women religious, seminarians, lay people, and, yes, priests. The night before Holy Thursday of my junior year of college, I stayed up reading through the journal I had been keeping on and off since age fourteen. I read through accounts of family vacations, and memories of adventures during my semester abroad. I read through my list of firsts: my first kiss with a boy, my first time telling someone I was gay, my first sexual experience. I read through the manic biblical scribblings, the raging prayers and questions. I touched fingers to the tear stains on the poem I wrote about my first crush.

I thought about how desperately I longed for peace–a peace the world seemed incapable of giving.

Of things that would surprise me, receiving “peace” was not at the top of the list. Quite frankly, it’s not something that I ever thought I would find – certainly not after coming out.

And yet, reading through my life, with that priest’s advice on coming out dancing through the back of my head, I realized that coming out was not about doing anything. Rather, coming out was like the wolf and the lamb embracing one another in love, letting something seemingly impossible simply happen the way it was always meant to. And when I did come out, it was the most profound experience of peace that I had ever known.

This Advent is an opportunity for us to remember that Christ’s peace is not just one that will come at the Parousia, the Second Coming. No, Christ’s peace is offered to us daily, a peace that can give us rest. Regardless of the condemnations of the Magisterium, or the sudden emboldening of homophobia and transphobia spreading across the United States after the election, or the vitriol of our families, we are in fact loved in all that we are. When we embrace ourselves in all of our integrity, we find Christ embracing us, too. And it is this embrace that will give us peace.

–John Winslow, December 4, 2016

What If God Is Not Answering Our Prayers?

By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 16, 2016

Today’s gospel reading describes a situation that Catholic advocates for LGBT issues might find familiar. In Luke 18:1-8, we hear Jesus’ parable of a widow who keeps clamoring to the local dishonest judge to give her justice.  The judge, who describes himself as someone who neither fears God nor respects any human being, will offer her a just decision if only to stop her from continually harassing him with her pleas.

Jesus explains that God, who is all just, will certainly do as much as, and even more than the dishonest judge to protect “the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night.”

As someone who feels like he has been clamoring to God for decades now for justice for LGBT people, Jesus’ answer provides some amount of comfort:  God will, in fact, hear us, and protect our rights, too.

But guess what?  So far, God hasn’t done so.  And I’ve been clamoring for a while.  And I know a LOT of people who’ve been clamoring for a while–and many of them have been clamoring a LOT longer and a LOT more than I have.  So, what does that mean about God’s response to us?

I think Jesus gives us an answer to that question at the conclusion of today’s gospel.  After assuring his listeners that God will answer their prayers, he ends with a question:

“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Now, I’m always leery of sentences that begin with “but.”  It often indicates that whatever was said before it should not be taken seriously, like: “I really like your outfit, but I would not want to wear it.”  So, when Jesus offers his “but” statement, I think he is telling us, “Yeah, God is going to answer your prayers, but what really matters is not your petitions and God’s response, but whether you have the attitude of faith.”

I know that in a lot of my clamoring to God, I often don’t have that element of faith in my prayer.  I clamor to God because I’m kind of hopeless, and out of options, and my prayers have more than a tinge of desperation, but usually not much faith behind them.  I think that in today’s gospel, Jesus is reminding us not just to clamor to God desperately, but faith-fully. We should approach God in prayer with the confidence that God will answer us, even if we can’t see the evidence of God’s answers in our lives.  As St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Hebrews (11:1):

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Beyond the purely spiritual benefits of praying with faith, there is an important practical benefit.  When we pray with faith, it’s like receiving new eyes to see the world through the lens of faith.  This new vision helps us to see things that we might have overlooked in the past.  We can start to see where progress on LGBT issues is being made, and where work still needs to be done.  We can start to see how God has actually indeed answered our prayers already, but maybe not in the way that we were expecting.  We can see more clearly that even though we may not have reached our goals of equality and justice, God is so intimately close to us, loving us, strengthening us, as we continue our work.

This approach is not asking us to just “look on the bright side” of things or to see things with rose-colored glasses.  It’s asking us to acknowledge a reality that is bigger than ourselves and our own particular desires.

So instead of wondering why it seems that God has not answered our prayers, maybe we need to look again at the world with eyes of faith to see that God indeed has heard our clamoring, and is helping us achieve our goals, little by little.

And, keep clamoring!

 

Remembering Matthew Shepard: Encountering Solidarity, Countering Isolation

Today’s post was written by guest blogger Alfred Pang is a PhD student in Theology and Education at Boston College.

By Alfred Pang, October 12, 2016

I experienced a micro-aggression about a year ago at Mass. It was during a homily that listed, in a single breath, the Magisterium’s teachings against contraception, divorce and same-gender marriage. It obliterated the complexity of each issue. There was, of course, the typical mention of the natural complementarity of male and female as biologically designed by God. Such preaching was not new to me, but until then, I had been able to shut it out, numbing myself to what is said and mustering enough generosity to understand that some homilists do not know any better.

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Matthew Shepard

On this particular occasion, I could not. Instead, I simply shut down. I felt invalidated within the church I love as a gay Catholic man. I was angered by the quick dismissal of fruitful same-gender love. I found myself isolated and silenced in the broken shards of the church in which homophobia goes unrecognized. I simply shut down. Such is the power of micro-aggressions, whose cumulative toxicity, often unbeknownst to the offenders, wears down our souls, wearies our bodies and renders our selves invisible.

What aided in my recovery was remembering the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die on a cold October night in 1998. I recalled, in particular, Dennis Shepard’s (Matthew’s father) statement to the court at the trial of his murders. These words comforted me:

“By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.”

The assurance that God is with me brought me much consolation. God’s presence endures as life not in spite of but in the midst of loss and death. Dennis Shepard’s description of God’s presence in creation and, as Creator, embracing Matthew in Her womb of life, is powerfully evocative. God must have grieved. And in our pain, God grieves with us. We have God because God first loved us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

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Alfred Pang

During my recovery, I realized that God is present not simply to piece together the broken pieces of my life. God is just not into patchwork! God’s daily invitation to us to be reconcilers in Christ is not simply to be a people who patch things up. Rather, God creates us anew and calls us to be co-transformers in the world in light of our wholeness in Christ who holds all things together. I am reminded by Mr. Shepard’s words that the pain that I was experiencing is not mine alone, but shared in the interconnection of our many individual lives held and sustained by the One divine breath of God that blows creation into being.

This recognition of the inter-connectivity of our lives, I suggest, lies beneath the decision of Matthew’s parents not to press for the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two young men responsible for Matthew’s violent murder. It is also this attentiveness to the oneness of God’s divine life reflected in diversity that propelled their founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation just months after their son’s death. In the witness of Matthew’s parents, I gradually found hope and healing.

Today, we commemorate the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death and I’m struck that Matthew would have been my age if he were alive today. And today, I know Matthew is alive when we remember the reality of violence being directed at young people due to their gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Hate is, of course, to be resisted.

Beyond physical violence, Matthew’s story also points to the violence of isolation engendered by micro-aggressions cumulatively experienced in our families, schools, churches, and communities. More than an issue of unjust discrimination, every instance of someone fired from ministry or of another teacher dismissed from a Catholic school because of sexuality fuels this culture of isolation, leaving young people feeling abandoned, especially those who are wrestling with their experiences of sexual marginalization.

In today’s Gospel lectionary reading, we hear Jesus speaking to “the scholars of the law”: “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

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William McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard”

Jesus’ words are sharply poignant in light of our remembrance of Matthew. Jesus’ words ought to trouble us to confront not only our moral self-righteousness but also our complicity in turning the rich openness to God’s life within the Christian tradition into an enclosed grave for LGBT people and their families. Together with the crucified Christ, let us be stirred by Matthew’s death to lament over the continuing loss of young LGBT lives due to the distress experienced in isolation.

Yet, let us also be challenged that death does not have the last word. God’s enduring presence as life calls us forth to resist dehumanization by first recognizing that violence in any form is never deserved and deserving. Instead, we deserve to be loved as persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are no damaged people. There are only intersecting systems of dominance due to homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism that damage relationships.

Do not wait too long to tell someone how proud you are of them. This is the coming out that we all need to do to reverse slowly but surely this life-sapping culture of isolation. And may our families be the first spaces that need to be de-isolated, to be converted into spaces where blessings are shared in the midst of losses, and where our grief and joy, pain and hope are embraced as one, through a commitment to forgive, serve, and witness in God’s divine life. Anything less than these can only mean that Matthew and many other LGBT youth have died in vain, and our remembrance meaningless.

On October 20, people worldwide will “go purple” for #SpiritDay 2016 to resist anti-LGBT bullying and bias that youth experience in schools. For resources on how Catholics, and specifically Catholic schools, can get involved, please click here.

To read a Lenten reflection on Matthew Shepard posted earlier this year on Bondings 2.0, please click here.

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

QUOTE TO NOTE: Catholic Parish Hosts Pride Prayer Service

computer_key_Quotation_MarksAll Saints Catholic Church in Syracuse held a prayer service during Pride celebrations, which celebrated LGBT people and honored all those struggling for equality. Fr. Fred Daley, the church’s pastor who ‘came out’ as gay in 2004, gathered an interfaith assembly of several dozen for the service. He spoke about why a Catholic church would host such an event:

“Our mission is to be open and welcoming to all people. I think that often religion of all types lose focus on that and can instead become instruments of isolation and segregation. We are trying to be sure to do our best to stop that at All Saints…

“This is about God’s love – God made all of us, and we teach that God is good. This event tonight is about inclusion and where there is inclusion there is light.”

You can read more about the prayer service at CNYCentral.com and view the video below to hear more from Fr. Daley.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Does the BVM Want France to Oppose Marriage and Adoption Equality?

French Catholic bishops are reviving a 17th-century “prayer for France” and updating it to include a reference to oppose same-sex marriage which that nation is considering legalizing, as well as to oppose adoption by same-gender couples which will be legalized next year.

Reuters reported this week that the prayer is to be read in all Catholic churches in France on August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The French language version of the prayer can be read here. The Reuters report contains the relevant excerpts from the prayer in English:

“In the text, Catholics will pray for newly elected officials ‘so that their sense of the common good will overcome special demands.’ This would include support for traditional families ‘throughout their lives, especially in painful moments.’ ”

“Opposing gay adoption, it says children should ‘cease to be objects of the desires and conflicts of adults and fully benefit from the love of a father and a mother.’ ”

“The prayer is unusual for French bishops, who usually keep a low political profile. Church spokesman Monsignor Bernard Podvin said they wanted to ‘raise the consciousness of public opinion about grave social choices.’ “

On a Salon.com blog, Judy Mandelbaum reports the reaction to the proposed prayer from one French politician:

“Nadine Morano, a Catholic and pro-gay marriage politician and former family minister for the conservative UMP party, told journalists this morning that ‘the Church is acting within its role when it defends values, particularly those of marriage… But the Virgin Mary, to whom I am very much attached, does not reject any of her children.’ Morano pointed out that blindly praising the two-parent model ‘simply means ignoring the fact that 85% of violence done to children occurs within traditional families.’ She will be boycotting the event.”

The Reuters report provides some background on the history of the prayer:

“King Louis XIII decreed in 1638 that all churches would pray on Aug 15, the day Catholics believe the Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into Heaven, for the good of the country. The annual practice fell into disuse after World War Two.”

Mandelbaum offers the following comment on the prayer’s history:

“The revived prayer seems like an odd way to snipe at gay marriage and adoption. In 1637, desperate to have a son after twenty-three years of marriage to Anne of Austria, Louis had promised to dedicate his kingdom to the Virgin Mary and order annual prayers to be spoken in her name if she would only give him a male heir. The next year, Louis XIV – the famous Sun King – was born, and the rest is history.”

Prayers required by the hierarchy are one thing.  Let’s remember, however, that an important part of the Eucharistic liturgy is that the faithful are encouraged to offer their own prayers of petition, thanks, and praise.  I suspect that the French prayers of the faithful,  probably mostly silent, will be offered in support of marriage equality and adoption by lesbian and gay couples.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry