Faith in Spite of Tradition
June 4, 2017
Pslam 139:1-14; Ephesians 2:4-9
There is this wonderful affirmation in the bible that God loves us ‘in spite’ of ourselves. It sounds like a touching forward to a book, written by someone middle aged, who has made some serious mistakes. “To my wife, Martha, who chose to love me beyond all reason.” It is the affirmation of someone who has made it to the second or third stage of love, the stage when you realize that no spouse is perfect, no one can really keep you swept off your feet. At some point, you choose to love and you choose ‘in spite of’ not ‘because of’…
It is funny the way we find ourselves living in our thirties and forties, sometimes wondering exactly why we are doing what we are doing? And Church is one of those traditions and this sermon is for those who have wondered silently to themselves exactly ‘what am I doing really in this pew?’
So many of us here have had a substantive dialogue with ourselves… We just couldn’t exactly take up the faith tradition and the values that we were raised with wholesale. This has produced quite a bit of subterranean roil in our lives, even if we couldn’t exactly speak about it with the previous generation because it would probably hurt their feelings and we can’t completely articulate why we have to leave it behind but we can’t totally leave it behind either.
I heard Dan Savage expound on the subject from the agnostic side of the aisle this summer on “This American Life”. You may recognize these feelings.
“I am a lapsed Catholic… Which means I cross myself on airplanes. And half the time when I take the Lord’s name in vain, like when I mutter Jesus Christ through clenched teeth as my boyfriend passes someone going 90 miles an hour, I am in all honesty seeking the protection of a higher power.
I go right back to not believing in God once he’s safely delivered us back to the right hand lane. Which makes me a hypocrite. And an ingrate. I was raised in a Catholic home. I went to the same Catholic grade school my mother and grandmother did, and I had some of the same nuns they both did as teachers.
But by age seven, I was already having trouble reconciling loving father with eternal damnation. And the fatal blow came at age 14, with the realization that I was gay. Something I figured out at roughly the same time I entered an all-male high school for Catholic boys thinking about becoming priests. Which is a bit like realizing you’re an alcoholic on your first day working at the Budweiser bottling plant.
Luckily for my sanity, I didn’t think, “Oh my God, I’m going to hell.” I thought, that can’t be right. What the church– my church– says about me. They have to be wrong. Soon I was contemplating the possibility that the church was wrong about other stuff. Maybe lots of other stuff. The odds of virgin births. The virtues of celibacy. And it didn’t take long to arrive at the biggest doubt of all– the existence of God. And that was that.
By senior year I’d started going to a public school and stopped going to church, except for the odd family wedding, baptism, or funeral. And they are all odd, aren’t they? …Then, 12 months ago, my mother died. A virus can lay dormant in your body for so long that it’s possible to forget you were ever infected. Then something happens that weakens your immune system and the virus seizes its opportunity. For more than two decades the Catholicism I’d contracted at Saint Ignatius had lain dormant, manifesting itself only on airplanes and in passing lanes. But the immunity I’d long enjoyed was weakened by my mother’s death. Because since that sunny, awful day in Tucson last spring, I found myself slipping into Catholic churches.
Not for odd weddings or funerals, but on totally random days of non-holy, non-obligation. Tuesday afternoons, Friday mornings. And not just going to church, but going out of my way to go to church. There’s a Modernist Catholic chapel close to my office. It won a big design award, but to me it looks like all modern churches do. Like someone stuck a crucifix up on the wall in the rec room at the Brady house.
Saint James Cathedral in downtown Seattle, a longer walk, looks like a Catholic church should. A lot like Saint Ignatius, actually. Stained glass, marble, crowds of plaster saints. Saint James is open for contemplation all day during the week. There are usually one or two volunteers straightening up the hymnals and the offering envelopes in the backs of the pews, and keeping an eye on the homeless people, and me, that have come in to get out of the rain. There’s no music, only a few lights are on, and when a priest strolls through he doesn’t make eye contact with anyone.
When my mother would call me with bad news– a relative I hadn’t seen in years diagnosed with cancer, a friend of hers with a desperately ill grandchild– she would always say, “I know you don’t pray, Daniel. Keep them in your thoughts.” My mom knew that thoughts were the best I could do. And now, at Saint James, I sit in a bank of pews opposite a white marble statue of the Virgin Mother, stare into her face, and keep my mother in my thoughts.
By her own estimation my mother was a good Catholic. She believed in Jesus, the Resurrection, the virgin births, both of them. ..The Trinity, the Sacraments. She believed that sex was sacred, and that people, particularly people with children, should be married to each other. But she didn’t believe that being a good Catholic meant blind obedience. So I guess you could say she was a good American Catholic. She believed women should be priests. That priests should be able to marry. And after four pregnancies in four years, she concluded that birth control was not a sin.
She prayed that the leaders of her church would come around during her lifetime. Unfortunately, the church, under the last two popes, went in the opposite direction. And whenever Pope Francis… condemned birth control, or insisted that women could not and would not ever be ordained as priests, my mother would sometimes call me and sigh and say, “it’s like they’re trying to make Lutherans of us all’.
But she refused to leave the church because she believed it was her church, too, just as much as it was the Pope’s. A little voice inside her head said, that can’t be right, they must be wrong. That voice, the same one I heard, somehow left her faith stronger.
She took it hard when I came out. Her first impulse was to call a priest. God bless Father Tom, who, when my mother, distraught, told him I’d just come out to her, placed a hand on my mother’s knee and came out to her himself.
My mother came around fast. And came out swinging. Rainbow stickers on her car, a PFLAG membership, and an ultimatum delivered to the entire extended family. Anyone who had a problem with me, had a much bigger problem with her.
My mother was diagnosed with a degenerative lung condition six years ago. She had some bad years, but she was stable enough last spring to drive down to the Southwest with her husband, my step dad, to visit her sisters. She took a turn in Tucson, where she was hospitalized for a week. But we thought she was going to pull through, as she had on several other occasions. Her doctors in Chicago had just given her two more years.
But the morning of her seventh day in the ICU, the morning we’d begun to make arrangements to get her back home to her own bed and her own doctors, a moment after my stepfather left her bedside for the first time in a week, a doctor appeared at the door of her room and waved me into the hallway. There’d been developments. Her lungs have been slowly disintegrating for five years, and now they were coming apart. One had a hole in it that was getting bigger, and there was no going home. This was it. The doctor told me he needed a medical directive from my mother, and he needed it now. Can I go get my stepfather? No. Now.
So it fell to me to tell my mother that she was going to die, and lay out her limited options. She could have a tube put down her throat and be hooked up to a machine that would breathe for her for a day or two. But she would be in a drug-induced coma, although she would live long enough for her other two sons to come to Tucson, but she wouldn’t know that they were there. She could wear an oxygen mask that violently forced air into her lungs and live for six more hours. Or she could take the mask off and go now.
‘No mask’, she said. ‘No tube.’ Now. I told the doctor. And then I ran to the ICU’s waiting room to get my step dad and my sister and my aunt. She didn’t go into the hospital expecting to die, and she was not ready to go.
When we were all at her bedside, she arched one eyebrow, shook her head and said, “Merde!”
My mother used profanity sparingly, and only in quotation marks. When she said “The S word” what she meant was the kind of person who casually uses profanity might be inclined to say “The S word” at a moment like this, but I am not the kind of person who uses profanity. I am a Catholic grandmother. And I certainly wouldn’t use it at a moment like this, but if I were the kind of person who used profanity, “The S word” might be the word I would use right now…. She swore on her death bed as a joke, because she wanted to make us feel better.
A priest arrived to perform last rites. And it helped her brace for what she knew was coming for an extremely painful final few moments. I could see it help. I could see the comfort the sacrament gave her. It gave me comfort. The priest led us in prayer. Prayers my mother and I both learned at Saint Ignatius. Prayers that filled a terrible silence, and solemnized an awful moment. And then my mother told us she would be with us always, looking down on us, and that we would see her again. She didn’t say in heaven, but that is what she meant.
Then she made her last request. “Remember me. Keep me in your thoughts, Daniel.”
One of the cards in the back of the pews at Saint James is addressed to non-practicing Catholics. “WELCOME BACK” is printed in large letters across the top. Are you a Catholic who’s been away from the church? Welcome back classes are designed to help you return to the sacraments and regular church attendance. A return to the sacraments.
I fantasized about returning to the sacrament of confession. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It’s been 29 years since my last confession. Hope you packed a lunch.
I want for there to be heaven. And I want her to be looking down on me…”
He can’t bring himself to believe in the faith of his childhood. So he finds himself back in church, not because he believes the dogma.. but to make a connection…
I think it is a parable of our age. We know we need a transcendent dimension to our lives, even if the world view of traditional religion can no longer be believed entirely as presented to us as children. We are here because we need a connection, a deeper, fuller connection to each other and through each other, to God.
We come seeking not so much answers about the after-life as we do a genuine way of being in this life. We come honoring the tradition that we received and the previous generations that meant well for us in giving us what they knew.
But it is befuddling, because we know that for better and worse, we cannot simply accept the tradition whole cloth. We have to selectively take from the past and, for better and worse, figure out a spiritual meaning for our generation that makes sense for us and the world that we are raising our children in. We have to shape this for ourselves irrespective of the tradition of the church and all of the authority that goes with it. We simply have to think outside of the box.
And so we come here, not even completely sure what we are doing, seeking a connection in the midst of a rapidly changing world. We aren’t just traditional families anymore, we have gay families with us too. We don’t have just families from our same ethnic culture anymore, we come with families from Asia, Africa, South America- literally from all over the world.
We have the spiritual challenges not just of finding integrity in our community here, but a spiritual connection that has neighbors in the Middle East, in China, literally in Timbuktu- as our world becomes integrated into a single people that inhabit the planet earth.
Our challenge is so much more complicated and inner-related that the spiritual quest has become much more sophisticated and today we just viscerally feel the need for spiritual grounding as never before in our lives. It is just there.
You are in the right place to find the nourishment that you need. We can be respectful of the tradition of the past, even if we aren’t tied to it. We need to look back in a period of rapid change but we all know that the real energy is developing the spiritual imagination to envision what is coming next, to anticipate what the rising generation will face, and do what we can to equip them with the spiritual grounding they need.
We may get it only partially right. I’m sure our children will let us know. But God loves us. God wants what is best for us. Let that love guide your imagination; let that love guide your life with your spouse; let that love guide your family. And claim the freedom to make a profound connection in a new way from the previous generation, with new families around you. We’ll all be richer and better for it, figuring it out for this generation as we go.