A few random thoughts on the season, certainly not theologically profound, but personal in the setting of my journey these days. From the beginning of the Nativity Story it seems that God is showing quite clearly that “He” doesn’t care as much for a religious institution’s rules and regulations the institutions do. The Story is not so much about historical fact as about Jesus’ followers questioning what it meant for them in their time and place to be his followers — the same questioning many of us are doing today in our own lives.
Mary was a young girl who believed when an angel told her she would be pregnant by God, an unwed pregnant girl in a society that did not look favorably on such a thing. Joseph believed when he heard in a dream that, although Mary was pregnant and not by him, he should disregard social convention and not put her away, though by keeping her with him he would not be thought well of.
While we tend to exalt God and place “Him” on high, Jesus ended up being born in a very lowly place, because there was no room for him in the usual places. As the Story of the Magi shows, Jesus was a threat to Herod. In the Story for Jesus’ Baptism, which we celebrate this weekend, Jesus upsets things by insisting that John baptize him. According to the Story there is a voice which says, to us as well as to the folks present then, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. Evidently God approves of Jesus’ attitude to the religious systems of his day. Jesus went on to show the same attitude throughout his life. My question these days is what the Story is saying to me in my life at this time and place.
For most of my adult life I have been a part of two powerful systems — the Catholic Church and the US Army. In many ways I think the Army system is more akin to the gospel than the church’s system is. The Army is focused on accomplishing a mission while respecting and taking care of the people who are doing it. Respect up and down the chain a key part of Army culture. A senior NCO at the Infantry School taught, “Take care of your people and the mission will happen”. I have not found anything like this in the Church, whose attitude is along the lines of “we are the only ones who have the truth and can get you to the real God, so obey our rules or get out and be lost”, and throughout history continues to punished folks who dare to think for themselves. The Army tries very hard to ensure religious freedom for everybody, while church management seems to think that only they are entitled to religious freedom and can impose their values on everybody.
As the Miami Archdiocese shows, some bishops think they can trample on such basic rights as freedom of speech with impunity: even though marriage equality is the law in Florida, any archdiocesan employee who says or does anything public, including posting on social media, in favor of the law can lose their jobs. There is some philosophical similarity to the tragedies in Paris this week with people claiming to act in the name of Allah and Jesus. The Vatican’s statement “Without freedom of expression, the world is in danger” evidently does not apply to some areas of the Church itself. I don’t know what I would do if I worked for that organization. Fortunately other Florida bishops have a more pastoral approach.
Then there is the tragedy of Leelah Alcorn, a young southern Ohio transgender student, who shortly after Christmas, walked in front of a truck on I-71 in Lebanon, Ohio. She killed herself because her parents, for religious reasons, could not accept her transgender status. Many other young folks find themselves in similar positions due to religious standings which their parents choose to follow rather than accepting their child as a gift from God. Catholic teaching is that each of us is an image and likeness of God. It seems, though, that in some cases religious institutions claim to know more about people than God knows. They can never be wrong. God, on the other hand, might not know all that the systems know (and some really believe this). God does not make mistakes. All this in the name of Jesus who reached out to and loved everybody who came into his life.
There are many good folks among us whose first marriages have failed, and are trying to find love in another marriage. The system says that, since they have the audacity to be married without fitting into convenient canonical categories, they cannot receive the sacraments. Law and order management says the law comes first, and any attempt to allow these folks to receive the sacraments is an attack on the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. Bravo Sierra. Celibate males might know the books, but I’m not so sure we understand life. No one is questioning the indissolubility of marriage, only recognizing that some marriages fail. Pope Francis says that is is not so much that we have a right to the the sacraments, as that we have a need for the sacraments. No law can get in the way of this. It is a matter of pastoral caring and concern.
I firmly believe that Jesus meant it when he said “I am with you always”, that the Holy Spirit is very involved in what is going on these days, and Her work happens more in sincere questioning than in pat standard answers. Jesus loved people. As important as laws may be, they do not trump God loving God’s creatures and our responsibility to do the same.
What does it mean for me to be a follower of Jesus these days? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I really want to know. I think it demands great courage which I certainly don’t pretend to have. I know I can’t go along with much of what church management demands, e.g.: telling certain folks they cannot receive the sacraments; denying even in the civil setting folks’ right to marry the person they love; insisting that women cannot be ordained priests because Jesus didn’t ordain women; telling someone that since they do not fit the institutional models of whatever they are wrong and in sin; firing someone because of what they do in their private life; letting church management tell me what to think and what I can or cannot say. I have been the Army too long to accept this. One of the many things soldiers are good at is helping folks who cannot help themselves. I hope I can still think that way. Duty first, and perhaps my duty is to respond to Jesus’ call however I may think I see it. Don’t know if I have the courage to do this.
I feel some anger rising up at all this, and I don’t want it to get control. I remember my angry days, and I don’t want to go back there. Not sure what the Spirit is asking here.
Just saying . . .
This Post Has 2 Comments
Jim: Very thought provoking and well reasoned. I agree with your thoughts on the Army, the care for Soldiers and respect shown up and down the chain is one of our great institutional hallmarks. And I agree that the Church needs to be open and accepting of its people. I wonder about completely dropping our teachings and beliefs on things like marriage and sexual orientation. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” comes to mind. I do believe that those of us in a state of sin need the sacraments. I confess that I have taken the sacraments in a state of sin, and that they helped me weather the storm. I do not believe that they should ever be withheld from someone desiring them – often those in sin need the grace they provide more than others. I cannot say enough good things about Pope Francis – I think he really gets it. We must stay firm in our beliefs, while showing only love to those who may not yet believe (and may never in this lifetime believe).
Brian, I don’t think it is a matter of watering down our beliefs, but of finding a more pastoral way of living them. One thing I learned from my time in the Army is the importance and value of honest dialogue. This does not mean giving up our dogmas but of looking for the good and truth in others’ positions. I keep thinking of working with chaplains who thought our use of wine was sinful, and I weathered several attempts to enact regs that would have made it illegal to have wine in army chapels or buy wine with chapel/govt funds. Dialogue made it happen. We worked out ways that were aceptable to all sides.
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