Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Road Not Taken: Rediscovering Jesus’ Humanity and the Communal Life as Church

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on Sunday, August 23, 2020.

First Reading – Isaiah 22:19-23
Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 138
Second Reading – Romans 11:33-36
Gospel – Matthew 16:13-20

Good morning everyone. My name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

One of my favorite poems is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It starts as follows:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Many of us encounter different choices in life, and we may wonder about the road not taken. Sometimes these choices are clear, you have a decision to make, and at other times political forces and structures guide us in a way that make us less conscious of our decisions.

Dogma is an example of one such force that guides our thinking. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, dogma is defined as “a doctrine […] concerning faith formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church.” I would suggest that today’s Gospel reading is one of the building blocks that has been used to establish church dogma. It purports to answer two important questions. First, what is the nature of Jesus, is he God or a human prophet? And second, how will the legacy of Jesus be carried on after his passing? I want to interrogate both of these two questions and ponder some other interpretations than the established ones. You might call this a heretic’s view. But maybe it’s just another view, a view of a fork in the road we did not take long ago.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Humanity is?” They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or another of the prophets.” Jesus asks: “But you, who do you that I am?” Simon answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then replies, “Blessed are you Simon, son of John!”… “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God, my Father and Mother, in heaven. I tell you, you are the Rock, and upon this Rock I will build my church.”

Biblical scholars debate different aspects of this gospel text, but they largely agree that some parts were added at a later date, namely the question “who do people say that I am” as well as Jesus’ praise for Simon’s response and even the famous line “you are the Rock and upon this rock I will build my Church.” After you subtract the later additions, what remains are these different takes on the character of Jesus.

What does this text say about the nature of Jesus? Does it matter that a question was added at a later date? It might because the way you ask a question frames the information before us. There is a famous Peter Seller’s line in a Pink Panther film in which, upon seeing a man and a dog, he asks “does your dog bite?” The man answers no, so Peter Sellers reaches out to pet the dog and he is promptly bitten. Sellers then says “I thought you said your dog does not bite” and the man responds “that’s not my dog.” Many questions are loaded with assumptions.

I think it is significant that the question, “who do you say that I am,” was added later. This question sets up a dichotomy or a binary, Jesus is either human or divine, full stop. Furthermore, we are led to believe from Jesus’ appraisal of Simon’s response (also added later to the text), that divine is the right answer. But maybe this was never the question asked? Maybe this was a decidedly 4th century question reflecting a 4th century way of thinking about the world (the 4th century being the time when the Council of Nicaea codified the nature of Jesus). We know from contemporary queer theorists, and LGBTQ activists, that much of the world doesn’t fit into neat binaries. Sometimes things manifest on a continuum, simultaneously co-exist, or even just defy categorization.

Perhaps it’s my Vatican II sensibilities, but it makes sense to me that Jesus was simultaneously human and divine, as I believe the divine runs through all living things. Jesus’ task, as I understand it, was to show us how to let that divine more fully emerge in our daily lives, by being kind to others and ourselves, and by recognizing the common humanity and divinity in all of us, be they friend or foe. This was the path he charted for us to build heaven on earth, or the ‘way’ to contentment. Perhaps we are tempted to label Jesus as only divine, but I think that actually minimizes the true miracle of the transcendence he achieved. Rather than demonize or shun our humanity, we must embrace it.

As some of you may know, I recently lost my father to cancer just a month ago. He wasn’t a young man, but he was a very youthful 81, and I was taken aback by how quickly he declined at the end. While I have buried grandparents, aunts and uncles, the death of someone very close to you, be it sibling, spouse or parent, is equally devastating and deeply grounding. To help him bath one week, and then to touch his dead body in another was one of the realest things I have ever experienced. To see his ashes literally poured into the soil made vividly visceral the Ash Wednesday refrain, from dust you come and to dust we shall refrain. His death, perhaps the most human of human actions, made me feel oddly more connected to the world. I think the challenge of modern society is that we are so removed from aspects of our humanness (birth, illness, death) that we rarely connect to deeper energies.

The other common interpretation of this gospel reading is that it is a rationale for the institution known as the church and for papal succession. “You are the Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” As noted previously, this phrasing was also a later addition. Interestingly, Matthew is the only Gospel that uses the term church or ekklesia in Greek.

The way one lived was clearly very central to Jesus’ message. His was not a cerebral, abstract message as a different approach to living was part of his project. We were to care for one another, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to share our wealth. Living in community was not uncommon for early Christian collectives and it worked, as I have heard fellow parishioner Harrison Nelson argue, because it enabled poor and marginalized communities to live a better life. The Christian message is a guide to better living more than anything else, a roadmap for building heaven on earth.

But Christians were also persecuted within the Roman Empire and they suffered greatly during the first centuries following Jesus’ death. This changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This shift was important because it not only ended the persecution, but because it fundamentally changed the lived, communal aspect of Christianity. Instead of small communes led by elders who acted more as facilitators than rulers, we see the emergence of a Church organization patterned on the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the Roman Empire with a male leader at the top.

I cannot blame our forbearers for the decisions they made. Persecution and death were no fun and I am sure they were thrilled when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Debates about the nature of Jesus ended after Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea and the Roman Catholic Church became the strongest political force in Europe, outlasting the Roman Empire. That original way of Christian living, in a commune patterned on the life of Jesus with his disciples, would also become a distant, strange and alien form of social organization, marginalized to convents, monasteries, and kibbutzs. Just like the debate about Jesus’ humanity, this debate about how to live together and how to organize the faithful was seemingly shut down in the 4th century. As such, today’s gospel reading, with all its additions, shows us how they tried to close the door on future debate.

We currently live in a very unsettled time when institutions and authority are being questioned, and when sexism, racism and homophobia are increasingly recognized as systemic problems. The contemporary Catholic Church, an institution built by humans, is not immune from these important social debates.

But it is discouraging. I have been waiting since Vatican II for major church reform and it just never seems to come. I remember having a college professor in the 1980s, in a course on Catholicism, tell me that change was just around the corner. But the Church remains as hierarchical as ever, single men are in charge, and the younger ranks of the priesthood appear to be stacked with unimaginative, ecclesiastical conservatives. Part of me just wants to move on, to give up, to leave the church.

But, as much as some may have wanted to have buried it, the door was never completely closed on alternative ways of organizing the church. Jesus was a rabble-rouser who had his own issues with abuses of power within the Jewish community, turning over tables at the temple and showing his very human anger. Today’s Old Testament Reading from Isiah also speaks to the need for institutional change. As President Obama shared in a speech a few nights ago: they win if we stay home, “those who benefit from keeping things the way they are -- they are counting on your cynicism.” “We can't let that happen. Do not let them take away your power.”

Jesus, fully human and divine, had sound ideas for better living. We need to rediscover that road not taken and keep working to make it a reality, no matter the obstacles in our path. We are the Church, we have the power to make change. Thank you.

Note: Thanks to the Cabrini Word Team for helping me think through the issues in this text. Any mistakes or errors are my own.

The author may be contacted at moseley@macalester.edu or may be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/WilliamGMoseley

Sunday, August 16, 2020

We Need to Talk About David Hass

By Jamie Manson

NOTE: This article was first published June 30, 2020 by the National Catholic Reporter.

I first heard about sexual abuse allegations against composer David Hass [right] from a Facebook friend in a post last week. "I haven't heard much talk about this among progressive Catholics," she wrote. "Maybe our hearts are too broken."

Since the story first came to light, three of Haas' victims have come forward, telling NCR's Soli Salgado about the ways they were groomed, forcibly kissed and relentlessly pursued by the composer of well-known post-Vatican II hymns.

The news stunned the progressive Catholic world, whose liturgical soundtrack is filled with Haas' songs. His lyrics, so imbued with calls for love, justice and inclusion, earned him a place in the canon of luminaries of the Catholic reform movement.

Not surprisingly, the kneejerk reaction has been to "cancel" Haas: remove his music from hymnals and stop playing his compositions at worship services. While those actions may be justifiable, my hope is that we don't just rush to eradicate him and quickly move past yet another sad and ugly episode of "fallen Catholic hero." We must also take the opportunity to have a crucial conversation about what his alleged abuse reveals.

Since Pope Francis started to get serious about clergy sexual abuse about two years ago, many well-intentioned theologians, commentators and even some church leaders (including the pope himself) have pointed to clericalism as the root of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But the Haas story demonstrates that there is something even more systemic and more destructive at work in the patterns of abuse in the church.

The Haas revelations are reminiscent of reports in February of this year that Jean Vanier, the venerated founder of the L'Arche community, had his own sordid history of abusing adult women. In my response to that story, I wrote:

In nearly every case of sexual abuse we have heard about in the church over the years — whether the situation is priests abusing children, or bishops raping nuns, or ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually coercing seminarians, or … Vanier sexually assaulting adult women — there is one common denominator: the patriarchal belief that a special class of spiritual men are entitled to use women, children and other vulnerable men for their sexual gratification.

Though Vanier's patterns of abuse were more cultic and ritualistic than what Haas' victims have described so far, they were both members of that elite class of spiritual men, and, therefore, benefitted from the Catholic patriarchal mindset. The fact that neither of them was ordained shows the church's problem with sexual abuse is not rooted in clericalism, it's rooted in a theology of male superiority.

The Catholic Church teaches a theology of "gender complementarity," which means that though men and women are equal in dignity, they have complementary roles in the church and the family. In this scheme, God designed men to lead and take initiative, and God created women to receive and serve. The doctrine is the basis for the church's hierarchical theology, which essentially teaches that it is part of God's plan that women and children should be completely under the control of men.

When religious power is totally in the hands of men, it creates a culture of devaluation and distrust of women. Men support one another and cover for one another, and they treat women as disposable and their stories unworthy of belief. Rather than listen to abused women, men silence them or blame them for leading men into temptation.

This is why, even though the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew of at least one serious claim of sexual assault against David Hass from 1987, they still allowed Haas to create a music camp for teenagers.

This is also why right now, the women who are coming forward to tell their stories of sexual misconduct by Haas are being questioned or distrusted on social media, or simply ignored by leaders, colleagues and fans who just don't want to deal with it.

Part of the doubt cast on Haas' victims is rooted in our theological tradition that trains us to not believe women. But complementarity feeds another source of doubt about women victims, namely the Catholic penchant for male hero worship.

Haas seemed particularly adept at cultivating a sense of stature. As NCR reported, he gave his Music Ministry Alive program "the aura of prestige" and groomed students to desire his attention. One victim told NCR that her classmates hoped he would look at them when he sang his famous hymn "You Are Mine."

All of our lives, Catholics have been fed the notion only men are worthy to be priests because God only wants men to be leaders. Regardless of how progressive some Catholics try to be, time and again, we find ourselves falling into and feeding the belief that men are singular and exceptional. Haas, it seems, not only knew this, he exploited it.

If there is any benefit to the revelations about Haas and Vanier, perhaps it will open up a conversation about the abuse of adult women by men in spiritual power. Though some church leaders, including Pope Francis, regularly denounce violence against women, the reality is that a theology of gender complementarity entrenches and sanctifies gender inequality — and gender inequality is the root of all violence against women worldwide.

The stories of Vanier and Haas show us that "clericalism" cannot be the rallying cry for what needs to change for our church to stop sexual abuse and its cover up. What needs to change is the institutional church's consecration and elevation of male power. The hierarchy can create as many training programs, policies and procedures as they like, but until they address male dominance as the underlying cause of sexual abuse, the crisis will never be resolved.

Jamie L. Manson is an award-winning columnist at the National Catholic Reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jamielmanson.

Note: NCR can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's Grace on the Margins is posted to NCRonline.org. Sign up here.

See also the previous posts:
Complementarity of the Sexes: A Trap
Pope Francis' Woman Problem

Image: David Haas performing at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, February 2017. (Edited screenshot from YouTube/RECongress)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Quote of the Day

The President said today that he will “override the governors” and force states to allow churches to open. Churches should not be opened (or closed) by order of a president, but because it is safe to do so. To open churches before it is safe would needlessly put more lives at risk. And that would be the opposite of pro-life. Governors and religious leaders should follow the advice of public health experts and epidemiologists to help prevent the spread of infection and preserve life. Everyone wants to go back to church, including me, but not at the risk of increased infection and death, especially among the most vulnerable.

Churches are indeed essential for Christians, and the desire to worship together is a holy desire. But holy though your desire may be, it's not just about you and your desire. It's about protecting the other person, especially if you are, like many people, asymptomatic. Wearing masks, maintaining social distance and even not gathering in churches protects the other person.

There have already been confirmed cases in Texas and Minnesota where Catholic churches have opened and the priests were found to have been unknowingly infected. Coming into contact with their parishioners, and exposing them to infection, may end up causing deaths, especially among the most vulnerable – the elderly, who often make up the majority of churchgoers.

I'm not sure why this is so hard to understand. If you have the measles and a doctor says, “Don't go to church because you might infect a woman who is pregnant, ” you don't rail at your doctor for “impinging on your freedom.” You listen to the doctor, make the sacrifice, and stay home, as a way of protecting the other person.

All these preventive actions are ways of caring of the other person – that is, ways of loving.

Related Off-site Links:
Minnesota Church Groups Divided on Govenor Tim Walz's Orders – Jean Hopfensperger (Star Tribune May 22, 2020).
Minnesota's Catholic Bishops Say They'll Defy Walz's Limits on Church AttendanceMPR News (May 20, 2020).
Not Attending Church Won't Kill Anyone, But Rushing to Reopen Might – Jennifer Brooks (Star Tribune, May 22, 2020).
Pro-Trump Doctors to Promote Reopening States Despite CDC WarningsDemocracy Now! (May 22, 2020).
Churches Obsessed With Their Right to Reopen Are Missing the Point – Peter W. Marty (The Christian Century, May 18, 2020).

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Hope and Beauty in the Midst of the Global Coronavirus Pandemic

NOTE: The following was first published at The Wild Reed on March 14, 2020.

I went shopping today with my friend Deandre and saw for the first time what I'd only heard about or seen pictures of on social media: large areas of empty shelving in grocery stores and signage from store owners announcing to customers limitations of quantity of certain goods – namely toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

It was all very surreal.

And I couldn't help but think of Doris Lessing's novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, about a woman's experience of a society crumbling as the result of an unspecified disaster, referred to as “The Crisis.”

In film director David Gladwell's 1981 adaptation of Lessing's novel (described by critic Albert Johnson as “a cinema journey full of discovery”), the main (and nameless) character/narrator is luminously portrayed by Julie Christie. (For my reflections on this film, click here.)

Of course, the event that is causing growing unease and panic around the world is not, as in Lessing's novel, "unspecified." No, for us in 2020 the event is the coronavirus pandemic, one which, globally, is unprecedented, and which here in the U.S. is about to get much worse because of the incompetence of the Trump administration and the lack of any real public health system.

Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor is generally considered a dystopian novel, a story of end times.

Yet it can also be read as an allegorical tale of new beginnings. This is most resolutely symbolized in the salvific appearance of the mythic “Cosmic Egg” toward the end of both the novel and its film adaptation.

Writes Sharon R. Wilson about the significance of this symbol:

In Lessing’s revisioned creation myth, the Cosmic Egg requires human co-construction: the narrator mirrors her creator. Without the narrator’s journey through the wall and without her work to clean and order the chaos – work that matches that of the painter and gardener – presumably this egg could not open. As well as being a witness to the death and rebirth of the world, Lessing’s unnamed narrator is an active participant in its recreation.

I find this analysis of Lessing's novel, one that reflects the mystic path, to be both beautiful and hopeful.

And in recent days I've come across a number of writings by people who, in responding to the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, also offer beauty and hope.

Some of these writings are by people I know – friends and/or colleagues. Others are by well-known thinkers and authors. All reflect the beauty and wisdom of the heart, the seedbed of hope.


[N]othing feels stable. One month ago rumors rumbled, this week everything is shutting down. Within these last few days it has felt as if we were dropped into the plot of a sci-fi movie, where the viewer can see more broadly the entire scope of the problem and knows it is going to be bad. On screen characters are only beginning to sense the severity and react in fear. I hear the word, “surreal” quite a lot these days.

This morning I walked out of a bakery and into the familiar sound of honking just above my head. I looked up to see two geese preparing to land on a nearby pond. As I hopped into my car and headed down the highway, I was immediately gifted by a spectacular sunrise. It evolved from velvet purple, to azure blue to a popping bright yellow. As quickly as it arrived, it morphed to a calming lavender and ducked behind a bank of clouds.

When it seems as if nothing is the same, that everything is changing, as if there is no solid ground beneath you, take a deeper look. The birds are coming back to their summer homes, the lake ice is melting, the sun continues to rise and set in a predicable rhythm of grace. Regular life is still happening. Look beyond your (very normal) fear into the depths of your own heart. There you find stability. In that place, find peace. See grace.

And out of THAT heart space of stability, peace and grace . . . live.

Over this season you will find more posts than is normal for this space. I invite you to come, check in and breath. Take good care of yourself and those whom you love. And, be kind to each other.

– Andrea Wichhart-Tatley
March 13, 2020

If we imagine we live on some isolated little island, we are living in a fool's paradise. What happens over there affects me here.

My own well-being depends on whether I let you fall to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, telling myself that your life is none of my responsibility. If I let you be sick and without medical treatment, I myself will end up paying a price – as I will if I let you go without education, without food, without a job.

The butterfly beats its wings on the other side of the globe and the weather on my side of the planet feels the effects.

A global pandemic shows us that we are all connected to each other, all related, all kin, all in it together. And that we will not have lives worth living on this planet until we begin to recognize our interconnectedness.

William D. Lindsey
via Facebook
March 14, 2020

If we view ourselves as besieged victims who need to go into hiding, then we will cultivate fear and hoarding. If we view ourselves as a community working hard to protect the most vulnerable among us, then we will cultivate courage and helping. Mindset matters.

Len Niehoff
via Facebook
March 13, 2020

I was thinking this morning about how rapidly things can change. A week ago, I bought a new mattress at Macy’s. The sales person stood to shake my hand at the end of the transaction and I said, “Ah, no. We are supposed to be training ourselves not to shake hands now that the coronavirus has arrived in the U.S.” At that time, there had been five confirmed cases. We sort of laughed as we awkwardly attempted the elbow bump and he said, “Well, you are my first elbow bump of these new times.”

I left the furniture store and went to Trader Joe’s, where I leisurely shopped, overhearing the few other folks also shopping casually discussing things like what to purchase for dinner or what cheese to serve to guests gathering later that night. It was calm, the shelves were well stocked. I even bought a few hyacinth bulbs. And I probably touched my face 14 times without giving it another thought. It almost seems inconceivable that that was only a week ago in light of how much has changed in our world since then. That salesman might not even have a job this weekend as the stock market tanks, businesses voluntarily close for a few weeks in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” and people’s priorities shift from purchasing furniture to stockpiling toilet paper and disinfecting wipes.

By week’s end, my Facebook feed was full of photos of completely empty shelves at Trader Joe’s as the urge to hoard food and essentials became harder and harder to resist as the numbers of confirmed cases rose exponentially and the inevitability of self imposed isolation came into sharper and sharper focus.

As I was preparing the bedroom for the delivery of the new mattress later this afternoon, I was actually thinking how risky it feels to have strangers come into my “clean space” and what I would do if they arrive coughing and appearing unwell. I was pondering all this, and marveling at how long 24 hours can feel in a time of such uncertainty, when I flipped on the light in the dining room and discovered my hyacinth bulbs had bloomed. It sort of felt like the Universe was challenging my conclusion that everything that changed so quickly this week was in the negative column.

Alright Universe, you win. Sometimes rapidly changing things can surprise us with amazingly beautiful results. I hope you are surprised by beauty sometime this weekend as well.

– Amy Gabriel
via Facebook
March 14, 2020

As the world has slowed down in almost every experience of what the marvelous Sister Jenna calls “a global pause,” I’m having my most precious experience: a couple of days with my daughter India. . . . The coronavirus is reminding all of us to savor what we have, to go deep at a moment when we’re not as free to go wide. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said that “Every problem in the world stems from [humanity’s] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

We are being forced to be quieter than usual, and hopefully even in our sadness we will discover deeper wisdom. God knows there’s a lot of it to discover, about ourselves, about our country, and about our world.

What are we doing with our lives? Not how long will they be, but how meaningful will they be?

And who that we love can we love a little better, a little deeper?

These are the questions which emerge in the quiet, that remind me of this line from Rilke: “Let me not squander the hour of my pain.”

Marianne Williamson
via Facebook
March 13, 2020

Italians are beating the social isolation imposed by the country's coronavirus lockdown by taking to their windows and singing in unison, with videos of the phenomenon racking up thousands of views online.

Since Monday, a series of decrees from the Italian government have drastically limited citizens' movements, with vast swathes of the economy shut down and people instructed to leave the house only when strictly necessary.

All cultural events have also been suspended, prompting some celebrities to start organising online performances and museums to put virtual tours online.

Another attempt to boost morale has now come in the form of impromptu music at people's windows. One recording in the Tuscan city of Siena has been viewed over 600,000 times on Twitter.

. . . Another social media initiative has seen Italians put up signs outside their homes saying "andra tutto bene" or "everything will be OK". The slogan is accompanied by a picture of a rainbow – often drawn by children at home as school is cancelled.

Italy has been struck by the worst European outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, with more than 17,000 cases and 1,266 deaths.

– AFP News Agency
March 13, 2020

Video of quarantined Italians singing to each other across deserted streets from their windows, balconies and doorways during the coronavirus lockdown is as beautiful as it is haunting.

David Allegranti, a writer for Il Foglio newspaper, shared footage of residents’ stirring rendition of a local folk song in the northern city of Siena on Twitter Thursday night.

“This video is touching,” Rome-based Allegranti told HuffPost via email on Friday. “The first time I saw it I started to cry.”

Allegranti said a friend sent him the footage, although it wasn’t clear who actually took the video that has now spread across social media. Twitter users were equally moved by what appeared to be an impromptu communal singsong.

. . . There were reportedly similar scenes of neighbors spontaneously singing together in Wuhan, China, in the initial days of the outbreak there.

– Lee Moran
Excerpted from “Quarantined Italians Sing Together
Across Empty Streets In Hauntingly Beautiful Video

The Huffington Post
March 13, 2020

Surviving this crisis will take a shift in mindset, and that’s tougher than we think – especially when we’re afraid.

Fear and anxiety can drive us to become very self-focused. This global pandemic is a real case of “getting sick together” or “staying well together.”

Our choices affect everyone around us. There is no such thing as “individual risk” or “individual wellness.”

This is the ultimate reminder that we are inextricably connected to each other. Turning away from collective action right now – as tempting as it is – will only generate more pain.

Owning and embracing our global interconnectedness (from a safe distance) and thinking about others as we make choices is, ironically, our only path to safety for ourselves and the people we love.

We can all get really shitty really fast when we’re afraid. I get it. I’m using deep breaths along with my personal mantra: ” Try to be scared without being scary.” Feel free to borrow both – they can help.

It’s also really normal for everyone to be on our nerves: The people who aren’t following the rules, the 10-second hand washers, etc. I get that too. TRUST ME.

But, like it or not, we just can’t give up on people. We’re all we have.

Stay awkward, brave, and kind. Love each other. Spread calm.

Brené Brown
via Facebook
March 13, 2020

For the vast majority of people nationwide and worldwide, this virus is not about you. This is one of those times in life, in history, when your actions are about something bigger. They are about someone else. They are about something greater, a greater good that you may not ever witness. A person you will save who you will never meet.

You may be healthy, and your kids may be healthy. Your parents may be healthy. Everyone around you seems fine. And all the things you planned and the 2020 spring you thought you were going to have has been completely undone. You have to work from home. Your conference is cancelled. Your semester is over. Your work is cancelled. It all seems fast, and out-of-proportion and disorienting. You look at each action and think – but it would be okay if I did that. It’s not so big. We worked so hard. They would be so disappointed.

Your losses are real. Your disappointments are real. Your hardships are real. I don’t mean to make light or to minimize the difficulty ahead for you, your family or community.

But this isn’t like other illnesses and we don’t get to act like it is. It’s more contagious, it’s more fatal – and most importantly, even if it can be managed. It can’t be managed at a massive scale – anywhere. We need this thing to move slowly enough for our collective national and worldwide medical systems to hold the very ill so that all of the very ill can get taken care of.

Because at this time of severe virus there are also all of the other things that require care. There is still cancer, there are still heart attacks, there are still car accidents, there are still complicated births. And we need our medical systems to be able to hold us. And we need to be responsible because our medical systems are made up of people and these amazing healthcare workers are a precious and limited resource. They will rise to this occasion. They will work to help you heal. They will work to save your mother or father or sister or baby. But in order for that to happen we have very important work to do. ALL OF US.

So what is our work? Yes, you need to wash your hands and stay home if you are sick. But the biggest work you can do is expand your heart and your mind to see yourself and see your family as part of a much bigger community that can have a massive – hugely massive – impact on the lives of other people.

I remember the feeling of helplessness after 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy. I remember how much people wanted to help. I remember how much generosity of spirit there was about wanting to give, wanting to be helpful, wanting to save lives. And many of you have had experiences since then – whether it was a mass shooting, or the wildfires, or floods. There have been times you have looked on and wondered how you could help. And now we ALL have that chance.

You can help by canceling anything that requires a group gathering. You can help by not using the medical system unless it is urgent. You can help by staying home if you are sick. You can help by cooking or shopping or doing errands for a friend who needs to stay home. You can help by watching someone’s kid if they need to cover for someone else at work. You can help by ordering take-out from your local restaurants. Eat the food yourself or find someone who needs it. You can help by offering to help bring someone’s college student home or house out-of-town students if you have extra rooms. You can help by asking yourself, “What can I and my family do to help?” “What can we offer?” You can help by seeing yourself as part of something bigger than yourself.

When the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failed and the lunar module was in danger of not returning to earth, Gene Kranz, the lead flight director overheard people saying that this could be the worst disaster NASA had ever experienced – to which he is rumored to have responded, “With all due respect, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Imagine if we could make our response to this crisis our finest hour. Imagine if a year or two from now we looked back on this and told the stories of how we came together as a team in our community, in our state, in our nation and across the world.

Your contribution to the finest hour may seem small, invisible, inconsequential – but every small act of ‘not doing’ what you were going to do, and ‘doing’ an act of kindness or support will add up exponentially. These acts can and will save lives. The Apollo 13 crew made it their finest hour by letting go of the word “I” and embracing the word “we.” And that’s the task required of us. It can only be our finest hour if we work together. You are all on the team. And we need all of you to shine in whatever way you can.

– Gretchen Schmelzer
This Can Be Our Finest Hour – But We Need All of You
March 10, 2020

Conversations will not be cancelled.
Relationships will not be cancelled.
Love will not be cancelled.
Songs will not be cancelled.
Self-care will not be cancelled.
Hope will not be cancelled.

May we lean into the good things that remain.

Jamie Tworkowski
via Facebook
March 13, 2020

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. And the people healed.

And in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

– Kitty O'Meara
via Facebook
March 16, 2020


It is shocking to think how much the world has changed in such a brief time. Each of us has had our lives and communities disrupted. Of course, I am here in this with you. I feel that I’m in no position to tell you how to feel or how to think, but there are a few things that come to mind I will share.

A few days ago I was encouraged by the Franciscans and by the leadership team here at the Center for Action and Contemplation to self-quarantine, so I’ve been in my little hermitage now for three or four days. I’ve had years of practice, literally, how to do what we are calling “social distancing.” I have a nice, large yard behind me where there are four huge, beautiful cottonwood trees, and so I walk my dog Opie every few hours.

Right now I’m trying to take in psychologically, spiritually, and personally, what is God trying to say? When I use that phrase, I’m not saying that God causes suffering to teach us good things. But God does use everything, and if God wanted us to experience global solidarity, I can’t think of a better way. We all have access to this suffering, and it bypasses race, gender, religion, and nation.

We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.

But for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole. This, I must say, is one of the gifts of television: we can turn it on and see how people in countries other than our own are hurting. What is going to happen to those living in isolated places or for those who don’t have health care? Imagine the fragility of the most marginalized, of people in prisons, the homeless, or even the people performing necessary services, such as ambulance drivers, nurses, and doctors, risking their lives to keep society together? Our feelings of urgency and devastation are not exaggeration: they are responding to the real human situation. We’re not pushing the panic button; we are the panic button. And we have to allow these feelings, and invite God’s presence to hold and sustain us in a time of collective prayer and lament.

I hope this experience will force our attention outwards to the suffering of the most vulnerable. Love always means going beyond yourself to otherness. It takes two. There has to be the lover and the beloved. We must be stretched to an encounter with otherness, and only then do we know it’s love. This is what we call the subject-subject relationship. Love alone overcomes fear and is the true foundation that lasts (1 Corinthians 13:13).

– Richard Rohr, OFM
Love Alone Overcomes Fear
Center for Action and Contemplation
March 19, 2020

[T]his will change us. It must. All plagues change society and culture, reversing some trends while accelerating others, shifting consciousness far and wide, with consequences we won’t discover for years or decades. The one thing we know about epidemics is that at some point they will end. The one thing we don’t know is who we will be then.

I know that I was a different man at the end of the plague of AIDS than I was at the beginning, just as so many gay men and many others were. You come face-to-face with mortality and the randomness of fate, and you are changed. You have a choice: to submit to fear and go under, or to live with the virus and do what you can. And the living with it, while fighting it, is what changes you over time; it requires more than a little nerve and more than a little steel. Plague living dispenses with the unnecessary, lays bare whom you can trust and whom you can’t, and also reveals what matters.

. . . Plagues destroy so much – but through the devastation, they can also rebuild and renew.

– Andrew Sullivan
How to Survive a Plague
New York Magazine
March 20, 2020

What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

– Arundhati Roy
This Pandemic Is a Portal
April 4, 2020

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Prayer in Times of a Pandemic
An Infectious Disease Specialist Weighs-in on Covid-19
A Prayer for the Present Moment
Move Us, Loving God
You, O Comforter, Are Ever Near
The End of the World as We Know It . . . . . . the Beginning As We Live It
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible

Related Off-site Links:
The Shape of Love in a Time of Contagion – David R. Weiss (Full Frontal Theology, March 12, 2020).
Psychologist Offers Tips to Calm COVID-19 AnxietyKARE 11 News via Allina Health (March 11, 2020).
Managing Stress During Coronavirus Outbreak – Shai Plonski (via YouTube, March 13, 2020).
Lizzo Leads a Mass Meditation Amidst Growing Coronavirus Concerns – Sandra Song (Paper Magazine, March 13, 2020).
Coronavirus Offers a “Blank Page for a New Beginning” Says Li Edelkoort – Courtney Mares (De Zeen, March 9, 2020).
We Can Waste Another Crisis, or We Can Transform the Economy – Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos (Jacobin, March 13, 2020).
Late-stage Capitalism Primed Us for This Pandemic – Bob Hennelly (Salon, March 15, 2020).
Bernie Sanders Can Lead the Fight Against Coronavirus. Joe Biden Can’t – Branko Marcetic and Meagan Day (Jacobin, March 13, 2020).
People Are Fighting the Coronavirus With Mutual Aid Efforts to Help Each Other – Lucy Diavolo (Teen Vogue, March 16, 2020).
Facing COVID-19 With Community Instead of Fear – Lornet Turnbull (Yes! Magazine, March 10, 2020).
A Pandemic of Love: Deeply Adapting to Corona – Jem Bendell (JemBendell.com, March 18, 2020).
Why Coronavirus Is Humanity’s Wake-Up Call – David Korten (Yes! Magazine, March 18, 2020).

BREAKING: God Tests Positive – David R. Weiss (Full Frontal Theology, March 16, 2020).

First and last image: Amy Gabriel.
Image 2: Julie Christie in Memoirs of a Survivor (1981).
Image 3: Deandre Dwyer.
Images 4-6: Michael J. Bayly.
Images 7-8: Screen caps from Memoirs of a Survivor.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

John Gehring on Why Catholics Should Participate in LGBTQ Pride Parades

The Wild Reed's 2019 Queer Appreciation series continues with the sharing of author John Gehring's recent Washington Post op-ed, “The Case for Why Catholics Should March in LGBT Pride Parades.” (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

As you'll see, Gehring penned this op-ed in response to Roman Catholic bishop Thomas Tobin's recent statement that given the church hierarchy's teaching on homosexuality (i.e., the “disordered” nature of same-sex attraction and the “sinfulness” of any physical expression of such attraction) and its opposition to marriage equality, “faithful” Catholics should not support or attend LGBTTQ Pride events, events which Tobin says, “are especially harmful to children.”

Following is author John Gehring's thoughtful response to Bishop Tobin.


Fifty years after patrons at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn refused to be silent and sparked a civil rights movement for gay Americans, Pride events are a familiar tradition in many states. Parades, teach-ins and panel discussions throughout June affirm the dignity of people who have been historically marginalized and continue to face discrimination.

While religious leaders take part in LGBT Pride Month celebrations, a Catholic bishop’s tweet last week provoked contentious social media debates about whether faithful Catholics should attend such events, given the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and teachings about homosexuality.

A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.

– Bishop Thomas Tobin (@ThomasJTobin1) June 1, 2019

As a Catholic who loves both my church and my gay friends and family, I’m sickened by this expression of hypocrisy, homophobia and fear-mongering. At a time when the Catholic Church is struggling to reclaim moral credibility after systematically covering up decades of child abuse, the idea that a Catholic leader would declare Pride events “especially harmful for children” reveals a stunning lack of self-awareness.

This is also a particularly tone-deaf and false assertion, given that Bishop Thomas Tobin served as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, one of several Pennsylvania dioceses included in a devastating grand jury report that found that more than 300 priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children over several decades. In an interview last summer, the bishop said that monitoring clergy abuse was outside his scope of responsibility at the time.

Tobin would have been smart to stick with his plans to quit Twitter last summer, when he described the platform as an “obstacle” to his spiritual life and an “occasion of sin for me and others.”

Catholics who attend Pride events are reclaiming their humanity and honoring the basic dignity of those they love in response to a history and culture where gay, lesbian and transgender people have often been discarded by their religiously conservative families and rejected by churches. Those who consider themselves “pro-life” Christians can’t ignore the reality that sexual minorities are disproportionately at risk for self-harm and targeted for violence.

The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force interviewed more than 6,000 transgender and gender nonconforming people from every state and found that 41 percent reported suicide attempts (compared with 1.6 percent of the general population). High percentages reported bullying in school, harassment on the job, and physical and sexual assault. At least 26 transgender people were killed in the United States last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Eighty-two percent of these victims were women of color, and most were younger than 35.

Last Saturday in Dallas, the body of Chynal Lindsey, a black transgender woman, was found by police, at least the fourth black transgender woman killed in that city alone in the past three years.

Any Catholic bishop who doesn’t understand that context, and uses his digital pulpit in ways that wound instead of heal, contributes to a culture where stereotypes are reinforced, discrimination is blessed and extremists feel emboldened to violence.

Catholics who rallied to Tobin’s defense claim he is simply expressing church doctrine. This is a deficient argument that, at best, reveals a limited, mechanical understanding of church teachings and, at worst, distorts it in ways that do real harm.

In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis urges Catholics not to view church doctrine as merely “stones to throw at people’s lives.” This attitude, the pope wrote, reveals “the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings.” While the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage and any sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman, the catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” When a bishop describes a Pride event as dangerous for children, those words threaten to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people, a form of unjust discrimination that the catechism forbids.

The good news is that while Tobin received a lot of attention, his views reflect only a vocal minority of church leaders. A developing pastoral theology – modeled by Francis when he meets with transgender individuals and same-sex couples – has encouraged more priests and bishops to build bridges with LGBTQ communities. This requires humility and listening rather than finger wagging.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, two years ago welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral. “I am Joseph, your brother,” the cardinal told the group. In a 2016 interview with America magazine, a Jesuit publication, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy described language in the church’s catechism that calls homosexual relations “intrinsically disordered” as “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”

Catholics from parishes in cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco have taken part in Pride rallies over the years. But even in more conservative and rural places, there are Catholics who demonstrate solidarity. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., sent a letter to the city’s first Pride Interfaith Service in 2017 that applauded the celebration as “a commendable outreach to people in the community who too often have suffered discrimination from people of faith.”

In the Christian tradition, pride is considered to be one of the “seven deadly sins.” Any follower of Christ should be wary of extreme self-indulgence and excessive individualism. So how can a Christian reconcile that with the libertarian atmosphere at some Pride parades?

Similar to the way that expressions of Black Pride in the 1960s were in response to the oppressive injustice of white supremacy, LGBTQ Pride events were created as safe spaces for people who have reason to wonder whether their bodily integrity will be respected when they walk down the street in some communities.

As a straight white male, I don’t experience that reality. By judging an expression of liberation and joy at a Pride event that some might consider flamboyant and excessive, I would be castigating from a place of comfort and privilege. In my deficit of empathy, I would not go to the margins, where Jesus spent his time. Being vigilant against the human temptation to be prideful is not the same for me as it is for a black transgender woman who fears being beaten up if she turns the wrong corner or who can be legally fired from her job in more than two dozen states because of her sexuality or gender identity.

Before Catholic leaders stand in judgment of Pride events, they might try a more Christian response and be willing to walk in the discomfort of another’s experience.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Gay Pride: A Catholic Perspective
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride – 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: An Overview
Catholics Make Their Voices Heard on LGBTQ Issues
LGBTQ Catholics Celebrate Being “Wonderfully Made”
Same-Sex Desires: “Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture”
Remembering and Reclaiming a Wise, Spacious, and Holy Understanding of Homosexuality
Trusting God's Generous Invitation
Worldwide Gay Pride – 2017 | 2016 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Marriage Equality
On the First Anniversary of Marriage Equality in Minnesota, a Celebratory Look Back at the Important Role Played by Catholics
The Journal of James Curtis

Related Off-site Links:
Catholic Composer Pens Inclusive, Pro-LGBTI Song for Pride Month – Stefania Sarrubba (Gay Star News, June 8, 2019).
Listen to the LGBT Person: A Response to the Vatican’s Gender Theory Document – James Martin, SJ (America, June 11, 2019).
Five Trans Catholics on the Vatican's Rejection of Their Gender Identity – Eloise Blondiau (Vox, June 12, 2019).

Image 1: David McCaffrey (Twin Cities Pride, 2007).
Image 2: Michael Bayly (Twin Cities Pride, 2012).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Rethinking Shepherds and Sheep

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 21-22, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Mark, as well as Psalm 23, are on the Good Shepherd with some passing inferences to sheep. When I met with the Word Team last week to discuss these texts, I learned that the faith formation students in our 5th to 8th grades were critical of this image as a metaphor for our relationship with God. I don’t blame them. Who wants to be compared to dumb sheep that get bossed around by a know-it-all shepherd that supposedly has our best interests in mind? More importantly, hats off to our young people for being critical thinkers and not passively accepting these ideas. That said, what I would like to do today is offer an alternative perspective on sheep and shepherds which might allow us to approach these readings differently.

So, first off, what about these dumb sheep? Are they really so dim witted? When I was younger, I enjoyed a comic strip by Gary Larson entitled the “Far Side.” One of the recurring themes in this strip was the inversion of humans and animals in the intellectual hierarchy, with the idea that animals might actually be much smarter than people thought them to be. Most farmers would concur that sheep really do need to be herded. But, as per Gary Larson, what if the sheep are just channeling their mental energy somewhere else than the everyday practicalities of life? They may look like mindless fluffy eating machines in a pasture, but what if they are really spending their time solving physics equations and can’t be bothered to think about where they are going?

As a quintessential absent-minded professor, I must confess that I have some sympathy for sheep. You may or may not know that I can be pretty spacey. I can get lost in thought and literally become oblivious to where I am and what I am doing. My wife claims that I fortunately found the one and only profession where such a talent is prized: academia. But such a tendency can put a strain on one’s marriage. While there are literally hundreds of family stories in our household about me doing spacey things, I will just share one particularly egregious vignette to illustrate the problem. In the mid-1990s, my wife, Julia, and I were living in Harare, Zimbabwe where we both worked for the international NGO Save the Children (UK) on a large hunger mapping project. We lived in a small, rented cottage behind the main house on a larger piece of property. The property was fenced and gated, which meant that you always had to open a gate before going up a very long drive to our cottage. One day, we were coming home from work and I happened to be driving. As we approached the entrance to our place, Julia got out to unlock and open the gate so that I could drive through. Now, on that particular day, I must have been thinking about something – trying to solve some sort of problem in my head. As such, and very unfortunately, after driving through the entrance I didn’t stop for Julia to get back in the car, but just kept on driving to the back of the property where our cottage was located. I pulled up to the cottage and I looked over to the passenger seat and I was thinking where did Jules go? I literally had absolutely no idea where she went. I got out of the car and started walking back down the driveway when I saw Jules trudging up the hill. I said, very honestly, where were you, where did you go?

Julia, fortunately, has stuck with me. And that’s a good thing. Not just because she keeps me on track with the practical aspects of life, but because she also nudges me in the right direction on so many other fronts. To wit, we recently met a young Ugandan man at Cabrini named James. James had introduced himself to the congregation at the end of the service. After mass we said hello, chatted during coffee hour, and then offered to drive him home. As we got in the car, Julia discretely said to me: why don’t we invite James home for lunch, isn’t that what someone in Africa would do? And to this, I am ashamed to say, I hesitated. I was probably thinking that I had some “really important” thing to do that afternoon. But we did invite James over for lunch and we had a wonderful conversation, learning that James was here for a month as a medical student at the U and that he had come to Minnesota via connections with an orphanage we serendipitously already knew about in Uganda called the Blue House. My point here is that Julia nudged me in the right direction in this particular moment as she has at many other times in our relationship.

Most people don’t like to be compared to sheep because the implication is that we are simple minded followers. But what if the sheep metaphor is just a way of acknowledging our human potential for waywardness? Whether we are pensive, distracted, or worried, we can wander off course and we need good shepherds in our lives to nudge us back in the right direction.

Just as we are re-imagining the meaning of the sheep metaphor, I would also like to examine our conception of the good shepherd. What I want to argue is that we come to our understanding of the good shepherd via our own cultural understandings of this idea.

What is the stereotypical American understanding of the qualities of a good shepherd or herder? The US, as we know, is a majority urban/suburban nation. Increasingly there are very few Americans who have first-hand experience with animal husbandry and farming. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I probably was first introduced to the idea of the good shepherd in faith formation. I also encountered shepherds and herders in children’s story books. My take-away was that shepherds were above all protectors, they guard the flock from bad things like wolves. In American folklore we also have the iconic cowboy whom, by the way, we often forget is a herder. In fact, cowboys have been so abstracted from their herding context that we tend to focus on their protector role above all us. They almost always carry guns. They are rugged individuals who know best, are only accountable to God, and they protect us from danger. These are the American ideas we often bring to the good shepherd metaphor in today’s readings. We need a good shepherd to protect us from bad things out there, the good shepherd is only accountable to God, and we are lost without such a protector.

My experiences in West Africa with herders shed a different light and interpretation on this metaphor. As you may now, my wife Julia and I met in the Peace Corps in the 1980s in Mali. I served in a small, rural farming community of 200 people in southern Mali. This farming village of Bambara people also had, at its outskirts, 3-4 hamlets of herders composed of another ethnic group called the Fulani. My social life outside of work largely consisted of hanging out in the evenings with young male village friends drinking tea and chatting. There was a Fulani herder man name Sadio who used to come and join us some evenings. Despite the fact that some of the farmers teased Sadio for always smelling like milk and cows, I gradually developed a friendship with him.

As I began to learn the Fulani language, I spent more time with Sadio and his family. I learned to milk cows by hand and even spent a couple of nights in the bush with the herders and the cows. Herding was not an easy life. During the rainy season, the young men would take the cows far away from the village so the animals wouldn’t get into people’s farm fields. The herders didn’t eat very well, consuming mostly milk and some grains. The mosquitos were rapacious in the evening and the social isolation was challenging for these young men in a society where human relations meant everything. These herders tended to the cows like their children, carefully removing ticks from them in the evenings so they would not catch diseases. Above all, however, I learned that the herders’ main job was not to protect the cows from predators because there are almost no big predators left in this part of West Africa. No, their main job was to keep the cows out of farm fields. This task could become very challenging in the fall when the rains stopped, grass cover declined, and the crops were still in the field before the harvest. Hungry cows that see green in a distant field can be extremely determined to get there and eat as much greenery as possible. Allowing cows to wander astray could lead to serious altercations with the farmers in the area - and a potential for conflict that could sometimes escalate to violence.

In sum, the West African view of a herder or shepherd is quite different than the American one. Here the cultural reading of the metaphor is not that of the great protector. Rather, it’s a humble, hardworking person who tends to the health of his or her animals and adroitly steers them away from trouble, even if the instincts of the herd are to satisfy their hunger by feasting on a farm field – an event which would undoubtedly lead to conflict.

I want to conclude by suggesting that we can potentially use these different understandings of shepherds and sheep to sift through today’s readings. After reading and re-readings today’s passage from Mark, I was struck by how Jesus led by example. He mostly taught/led/shepherded by the way he lived his life rather than didactically telling people what to do. In Mark, we see how his active compassion for the masses and the marginalized was a lesson to others. Jesus’ ideas about how to live differently were revolutionary for his time. His thoughts on living in community, loving thy neighbor as thyself, & welcoming the outcast constituted a new “way.” Jesus, to the chagrin of some of his followers, was no gun toting, ruggedly individualistic cowboy with righteousness on his side, riding in to save the day. Rather he, like the lowly West African herder, was trying to lovingly shepherd people along this path to longer term peace and happiness.

Lastly, what to make of the penultimate sentence where Mark writes that the people who came to see Jesus “were like sheep without a shepherd”? Yes, we can read this as simple-minded people who were lost. But we can also read this as people who were mature enough to recognize that they needed a little help getting back on track or staying on track. Furthermore, these people didn’t just flock to anyone. They had choices. There were plenty of other prophets around at the time exuding strength, who were quick to lay the blame at the feet of others, or who promised material wealth. No, they came to see Jesus and I am guessing they did so because they recognized in him a different kind of wisdom. Indeed, these lessons about thoughtful sheep and the good shepherd are helpful guidance for the long but important task of making heaven on earth.

The author may be contacted at moseley@macalester.edu or may be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/WilliamGMoseley

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons in Power, Humility & Collective Learning

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 20-21, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

I would like to start with a brief story that was shared by the New York Times columnist David Brooks when he gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. In that talk, Brooks tells a story about President Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was fighting the Civil War, one of his early general-in-chiefs was General George McClellan. President Lincoln sought to see McClellan because he wanted him to fight a little harder, so Lincoln invited McClellan to the White House. But McClellan wouldn’t come, so Lincoln went to McClellan’s house. Lincoln arrives at McClellan’s house and the butler indicated that McClellan was out. Lincoln said that this was okay, he would wait. I little while later, McClellan came in the back door and went up the stairs. Lincoln waited for another 45 mins and the butler came down and said I’m sorry but General McClellan’s is too tired to see you. So this is the president of the United States sitting in the living room. He is with his assistant John Hay who says this is an outrage, he is insulting you. And Lincoln says it’s okay, I will sit here all day if I can get him to fight harder. Now Brooks’ point in telling this story is that it illustrates a man who is at peace, patient and persistent. Lincoln, the president and arguably most powerful man in his country, had no problem putting aside his ego for a higher cause, in this case unifying his country and putting an end to the horrendous practice of slavery.

What I am going to suggest today is that our readings have a lot to say about power, and more specifically, the insights and knowledge that is generated when power is inverted and humility is practiced. For that matter, I would argue that a significant portion of the gospel readings are actually radical and unconventional lessons for those who hold power and privilege. This seems more important than ever given the current #metoo movement, aimed at exposing abuses of power, and the temperament of some of our current leaders who lack sufficient peace to practice a Lincolnesque or gospel story approach to power.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we learn about Jesus’ early ministry, a time when Jesus is assembling his disciples. More specifically, Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilea and he encounters several fishermen. In each case, he calls to them, midstream in their work, to stop what they are doing and follow him. And, remarkably, they do. They stop casting or mending their nets and follow him.

My initial instinct when reflecting on this Gospel reading was to focus on the disciples. How did they process this call and respond so quickly? But this is not where I am going with my reflection today, because I was drawn back to Jesus and his simple act of walking along the shore and recruiting followers. There is a certain humility involved in having to recruit one’s own followers. In my mind at least, great teachers don’t have to actively recruit because their reputations precede them - and followers or students just go to them. In fact, this is what happened in last week’s Gospel reading from John. In this instance, two disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask where he is staying. These disciples took the initiative and wanted to be with Jesus.

But while last week’s story featured a regal and wise Jesus – to whom followers flocked, the Jesus in today’s readings is much more humble, a guy who chooses to pound the pavement in order to attract followers and develop a community. This version of Jesus is also fairly consistent with many of the other stories passed down to us in the gospels.

From day one, Jesus’ very existence seems to be an exercise in humility. For starters, the gospel stories are about an almighty and all powerful God who decides to lurk among us in human form. If you were impressed by Lincoln’s ability to patiently wait in General McClellan’s living room, then what about God stepping down from her heavenly thrown to be among us, and with us, in our often crazy world. From there forward, Jesus’ life and comments - as shared in the gospel stories - are often unconventional lessons in how to practice leadership. In fact, Jesus often frustrates his followers by not exercising authority in the traditional way or fawning before conventional power.

While we traditionally think of Jesus as transcendent, all knowing and wise, I want you to imagine for a moment that perhaps Jesus, the teacher or rabbi, was a co-learner with his disciples. In other words, maybe his disciples were less followers or students in the traditional sense, and more members of an active learning community facilitated by Jesus. As such, perhaps divine insight or the divine itself is co-produced and among us – rather than an external force.

This idea is a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, the notion we are part and parcel of the divine. In today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah, we learn how Jonah wrestles with this in his own comical way. Jonah, after spending three days in a whale or giant fish, gets burped up on a beach after he agrees with God to go to the city of Ninevah. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is to tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they and their city will be destroyed. Amazingly, the people listen to Jonah, change their ways and God does not destroy the city. But, ironically, Jonah is disappointed that God does not destroy the city because he thinks it makes him look bad because he foretold the end of the city and then it did not happen. Jonah can’t get his head around the fact that he was part of the divine process – people listened to him and they changed. Jonah can’t get beyond this me-centric idea that he is an autonomous actor that exists outside of the divine, rather than an active participant in the process.

So how does inverting power, practicing humility and co-producing the divine potentially play out in our own lives? Let me share a brief story with a couple of caveats. First, this is not to suggest that I have it figured out, but to imply that even very flawed people like myself can engage in such a process. Second, I realize that I am blessed with extreme privilege given my race, gender, economic status and education. As such, I likely can pursue ways of inverting power differently than those with less privilege.

My story dates from the time when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa in the mid-1980s. I was stationed as an agricultural volunteer for two years in a small community of 200 people. I was the first volunteer to live in the community and they welcomed me with open arms. I suspect, however, that they also had a lot of ideas about me and how I would pursue development. I was white, from the United States, the richest country on the planet at that time, and presumed to possess a lot of relevant technical knowledge. Some aspects of my life were perplexing to my village, including my desire to live with a local family, eat local food , wear local clothing, and learn the local language (all of which were part of the Peace Corps approach and philosophy at that time). But other aspects of my life were completely consistent with their expectations for an American, including some of my possessions, such as a short wave radio and a motorcycle given to us for work. Early in my Peace Corps tenure I used the motorcycle a fair bit to get around. The young men in my village really liked the fact that I had this motorcycle. It was relatively small by American standards, but actually quite large, flashy (painted red) and substantial compared to the local mopeds. I believe they liked the bike because it conformed to set of expectations for young males or machismo.

Early on in my tenure as a volunteer, an unfortunate incident occurred which even further endeared me to my young, male, village friends. One lazy Saturday afternoon, I was in my courtyard doing periodic maintenance on my motorcycle (I think I was cleaning the carburetor). After completing this task, I wanted to merely start the engine to see how it sounded – not to drive anywhere. Well, for reasons that I have never been quite able to figure out, the motorcycle immediately began to rev at full speed, and engaged, with me on top of it. I then proceeded to literally race, at a terrifyingly high speed, in the wheelie position, straight through the middle of town. The miracle is that I didn’t injure myself or anyone else, somehow managed to hit the kill switch, and the motorcycle decelerated, and turned off three quarters of the way though my small village. I then got off the bike and walked back to my house, trembling after what had just happened. Back at my house all of my young male friends were clapping and cheering. I was one cool cucumber for that fleeting moment. In their minds, I was like the Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo and I had come to live in their village.

The problem was that the motorcycle represented power and wealth – and it put distance between myself and members of the community, especially older people and women of all ages. So after a few months, I made the decision to park the motorcycle. I would use it once every few months to go to the capital city some three hours away, but the rest of the time I would walk or ride a bicycle. Of course, this was deeply disappointing to my young male friends. If I had this symbol of power and wealth, why not flaunt it? However, over time, this decision yielded tremendous results, especially when combined with my insistence that I was a facilitator rather than a development expert who had all of the answers. I just became Mambi (which was my local name). I was the American guy who lived in the community, spoke the local language, hung out in the evenings drinking tea with his village friends, and who liked to talk to old people and work on gardening projects. I proactively decided to let go of the trappings of power and it enabled me to do better work by learning from my village friends. This led to tremendous personal growth and to shared development efforts rather than imposed ones.

Let me end with a couple of thoughts. First, while there is a lot in the Christian tradition about justice for the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised, Jesus had just as much to say about the exercise of power. In fact, Jesus’ life is a lesson in how to lead differently by building a community of learners and leaders, rather than exercising top down control.

Second, places like Cabrini can and do model different approaches to power when they engage in learning and spiritual growth as a shared exercise. When we hear someone on this podium share a reflection, this person often imparts the thoughts of an army of people behind them. Our liturgist feeds us relevant background information, we hash out our ideas with the Word Team, we talk it over with our spouses, and they critique our rough drafts. While I am the messenger when I share reflections, and take full responsibility for any poor word choice or potentially offensive comments, anything of value that I have to offer almost always comes from this community that helps me shape a reflection.

Lastly, let us just imagine that Jesus operated in a similar fashion. Perhaps his pearls of wisdom, handed down to us as his parables and stories, were the result of a collective and shared process of co-learning with his disciples. This makes his stories our stories. These are stories which offer insights born of unconventional leadership, the inversion of power, humility, and the embrace of the wisdom of everyone. Indeed, we are all people of God. Thank you.

The author may be contacted at moseley@macalester.edu or may be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/WilliamGMoseley