Category Archives: Faith

About that protest at the Vatican

So I watched footage of the Femen protest at the Vatican, where a topless woman grabbed the Baby Jesus statue out of the crib with the words “GOD IS WOMAN” on her bare chest.  I am conflicted.

On the one hand, I’m really uncomfortable with the whole protesting topless thing that Femen does.  Not because I’m a prude about nudity, but because (according to a recent documentary) Femen actions are largely directed by a heterosexual man who ostracizes women who won’t go topless or who don’t fit his ideal of beauty. The group claims noble ideals of feminism, but I don’t think that choosing conventionally attractive women to take part in the actions does a lot to further full equality of all women regardless of size, skin color, or (dis)ability.  And I don’t buy the argument that naked breasts are the best or only way to get attention to promote gender equality.

On the other hand, I love a creative, provocative, direct action protest, and grabbing Baby Jesus from the crib at the Vatican nativity scene while shouting “God is Woman!” is pretty fabulous.  A lot more thought provoking than holding up a sign.  Christmas is the day Christians believe God became incarnate, a human being.  And many Christians hold on to a centuries old unfounded assumption that God is solely male and could only become incarnate as a biological man.  It is a harmful theological assumption that continues to devalue women and keep women from living lives free from oppression.  So a protest that interrupts the standard Christmas narrative, subverting the assumptions about who God is and how God is gendered?  I love that. I don’t believe God is a literal woman (any more than I believe God is any literal human form we can imagine, male or female), but I love the fact that this protester stopped the traditional Christmas festivities for even a moment to prod us into considering the implications of God as something other than a baby boy or an old white man with a long beard.

How might we treat baby girls if Jesus was born a little girl? How might we treat women if we truly believed them to be in the image and likeness of God?  I’m grateful for the woman who snatched up the Baby in the nativity scene and reminded me to ponder these questions.

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a mental health ministry

When I finished grad school with a master of theological studies degree, I had a lot of accumulated knowledge about theologies of liberation and a whole lot of uncertainty about how to put it into practice in a meaningful way.  I knew that I wanted to do some kind of advocacy ministry around mental health and spirituality, but I didn’t quite know how to go about it, or what it would look like.  I was also struggling to keep myself mentally well, and while it is possible to be a wounded healer, it’s also true that there is a reason why flight attendants instruct us to put an oxygen mask on first before attempting to help someone else with theirs: it’s easier to help another breathe when you yourself are not gasping for air.

So with deep gulps of fresh air in my lungs I’m starting to get involved in the mental health peer recovery movement, also known as the consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement of people who live with a mental health diagnosis.  This movement wants to transform the way that mental health is talked about and treated, and for me this extends to faith communities.  I’m using my ministry and theology studies, combined with my own lived experience, to talk about stigma in faith communities and find ways to make faith communities more welcoming to people who live with mental health conditions.  I gave my first presentation earlier this year at a local gathering of peers, and I am presenting a workshop this weekend at Alternatives, a national conference of the c/s/x movement.  My hope is that my words and reflections will resonate, and that I can continue to meet others who share a desire to transform faith communities into places of healing and refuge, free from shame and stigma.  I welcome your prayers, support as I continue to discern this possible emerging ministry.

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When we tremble and fall down

I was walking to the cafe when I saw the sirens.  Firetruck. Ambulance.  Was someone hurt?  As I neared the entrance they were wheeling him out.  Eyes open, alert, gurney tilted to a seated position.  I didn’t want to stare, I’ve been in similar shoes and I hated the stares.  But as I was looking away, in the corner of my eye I caught the movement.  The trembling shake, the arms not quite settled, and asked myself a question I already knew the answer to.

Walking into the cafe I saw the gawkers still staring out of the window at the ambulance.  Someone asked the waitstaff what happened and the answer to my question was what I guessed: “He had a seizure.”

“Poor thing.”

Yes, it’s a common phrase.  But do people ever stop to think about what they’re saying?

Poor thing.

When did he cease to be a human being and become a thing?  Did he become an object to stare at and to pity the second he fell down convulsing?

I didn’t stay in the cafe.  I didn’t feel comfortable among the pitying gawkers.  I walked around the block, and in my mind I was rushing back to the ambulance to say something.  To tell him, I know what it’s like.  I get it.  Me too.  I see you.  Not as a curiosity, not as an object.  I see you as a person who sometimes trembles, who sometimes falls down, who sometimes needs a hand.

JUST LIKE EVERY ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE STARING AT YOU.  At us.

We epileptics make people uncomfortable when we shake.  We remind people how out of control life is.  We remind them that at any minute they too could fall down, that they’re not as independent as they think they are.  And that reminder, it terrifies them.  We terrify them.  So they distance themselves from us.  We become poor things, Others.

In some cultures the epileptic is honored as a holy person.  Seizures are a sign of connection to the Divine.

In my mind I went back to the cafe and addressed the gawkers.
Can you shift your gaze?
What if, instead of staring in pity and fear, you saw a person having a seizure as your teacher?  As a holy messenger, telling you:
We need one another.
We all tremble, we all fall down, we all need a hand.

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a plea and a prayer (on hearing of the death of Matthew Warren)

Associated Press, Published: April 6
LAKE FOREST, Calif. — The Southern California church headed by popular evangelical Pastor Rick Warren announced Saturday that Warren’s 27-year-old son has committed suicide.
Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church said in a statement that Matthew Warren had struggled with mental illness and deep depression throughout his life.

Please, please may this news bring greater discernment in how we treat those with mental health struggles in Christian faith communities.

May the talk of automatic hellfire for suicide victims cease.  

May the blaming of the victims who take their lives cease.  May the judging of their moral strength or depth of faith cease.

May the poisonous theology of the prosperity gospel cease to be a driving force of Christianity.  May we stop equating happiness, wealth, and worldly success with evidence of God’s favor.

May we stop equating deep sadness, despair, and strong emotional outbursts with demonic spirits.

May expressed emotion, tears, and vulnerability not be dismissed as “womanly” or “unmanly,” but honored as human traits.

May those who cry “My God, why have you abandoned me?” be recognized for who they are: The Christ in our midst, begging to be taken from the cross of mental anguish and anointed with soothing balms of compassion and understanding.

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An obligatory papal election post

A few random thoughts about the new pope:

  • Symbolically, it’s incredibly significant that a non-European/non-North American was chosen, regardless of his views.  It’s about time that the leader of the Catholic Church is from a part of the world (Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia) where the majority of the world’s Catholics live.
  • It was nice to hear that he’s known to regularly take public transit and is critical of clerical displays of opulence.  Also nice to read his remarks criticizing priests who refused to baptize the babies born to single moms.
  • Not so nice to hear were reports that he was sympathetic to a dictator.  I want to hear more details about his actions (or non-actions) during the military junta in Argentina before I say more about that.  I hope against hope that he will be candid and honest if more questions are raised.
  • I’m not surprised about his vocal opposition to marriage equality and other conservative views.  Not much else to say, I’m exhausted from anger about stuff like this and feel sort of numb with resignation about the sexism and heterosexism in the church.
  • My inner lapsed Catholic geek is curious about how the Jesuit vow of obedience to the pope is going to work, now that the pope is a Jesuit.
  • On a crass note, he’s old.  That could mean surprising things (a la John XXIII) or just plain weird things (if he resigns and Benedict is still alive at the time, there could possibly be 3 living popes at once).  Or it could mean nothing.
  • Did he name himself in honor of Francis Xavier or Francis of Assisi?  His actions will give us the answer.
  • On a personal note… days like this remind me just how much my life has changed in the past few years.  And how much is the same.  The last time a new pope was elected I was sitting in the office of the Catholic youth ministry program I was in charge of.  One of the weekly activities I did with the teens I worked with was a mock conclave, complete with needle and red thread to count the ballots.  I was immersed in a Catholic church that I already knew did not fully accept me and my views, but I was still in denial, still thought that there was a place at the table for me.  Now, I’ve come to terms with my outsider status, I call myself a Catholic in Exile and no longer try to hold space in a church that doesn’t make room for dissent.  And yet, here I am, watching the live feed from Rome, curious about the outcome, and still the “token Catholic” that many of my friends turn to when they have questions about this church and its sometimes bizarre traditions. This being Catholic thing, it’s hard to shake.

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to be ordained

I was asked to perform a wedding.  I had a lot of the qualifications typically associated with ministers.

Four years worth of undergraduate theology studies.  Three years of graduate level theology and pastoral ministry studies.  Numerous years of paid and unpaid ministry work: leading rituals, composing prayers and liturgies, writing sermons and spiritual reflections, praying with people, and hours of informal sessions of spiritual direction with strangers, friends, and anyone else who heard I was into this God thing and wanted to talk about faith, scripture, the problem of evil, the nature of the Divine, or share a story that  more often than not began with “I used to go to church, but…”  And though it is presumptuous for me to say, I had what I felt (and still feel) is a calling to priestly ministry.

But I lacked the proper credentials to perform a wedding (one that is legally recognized).

During most of my education and training in ministry, I was Roman Catholic.  Being a Catholic and a woman doing ministry work means you can do all sorts of things that a priest or soon-to-be priest does, but only up to a point.  And be careful about calling your work priestly, or mentioning the dreaded “o” word (ordination) in the wrong company.  I was to be a lay minister, not an ordained one, not able to conduct weddings.  So when I left the Catholic Church, I left with the academic pieces of paper that signified my level of intellectual expertise, but no formal recognition of my role as a minister.

I have not ruled out finding another denomination to call my spiritual home, and possibly seeking ordination there if I am called (both by the Spirit and the community of faith).  But in the meantime, I had a wedding ceremony to help prepare.

And that’s the story of how I joined the ranks of the minister ordained online via the Universal Life Church.  It took a few minutes of my time (plus a small shipping and handling fee) and I now have the proper credentials to present to the proper officials so that the marriage will be proper and valid.


Say what you will about these online ordination sites, they take the “priesthood of all believers” seriously, and I love the radically equalizing nature of anyone and everyone being able to join the ranks of the ordained.  After so many years of experiencing the many ways the Catholic Church says “no” to women, it was heartening to receive an “of course!” to my desire to serve as a minister.

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thank you, Sisters

Catholic Sisters in the United States, you continue to be scrutinized and criticized by Vatican officials who claim to speak for the good of the church, but who are putting doctrinal conformity ahead of loving and serving the people of God.  I want to add my voice to the many who are speaking in support of your good work, and name just a few of the dozens, probably hundreds, of women religious who have made a positive impact on my life:

Sister Bernita, you were so kind to my shy kindergartener self.  And I still know the melody and words to your “Put Away Time” cleaning song.

Sister Joyce, you were the first woman I met who had a leadership role in ministry, both as the principal of my Catholic grade school and in leading us in song during so many liturgies.

Sister Rosemary, you made a special trip to be present at my First Communion.

Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, as a teenager I didn’t understand the complex geopolitical realities of Latin American solidarity work, I just knew that the local convent was providing shelter for a family from El Salvador, and that it was a Good Thing.

Sister Ruth, you were a teacher-by-example of what it means to live in radical solidarity with people experiencing poverty and discrimination.

Sister Carletta, I wish I had known you better, both as my great aunt Philomine and as a woman who also studied at a Jesuit university.  I was honored to receive the Franciscan cross that belonged to you.

Sister Brenda, your office was a student lounge where all were welcome.  You helped put me on the lifelong path of acknowledging white privilege and challenging racism, beginning with myself.

Sister Mary Peter, you continued to wear a modified habit and veil and taught contemporary theology with joy in your voice.  You helped show me how to honor the traditional piety of my Catholic upbringing while also embracing new, progressive ideas.

Sister Fran, you taught me yoga and meditation, and ministered to me with wise and gentle counsel when I was in emotional crisis.

Sisters at the Eighth Day Center for Justice, your courage and dedication were an example to me and other student activists as we began to build our skills of political organizing and advocacy.

Sister Gloria, you were the first to read what became the first draft of my master’s thesis, and your affirmation of my topic and method helped keep me going during the difficult process of writing.

I cannot imagine how different my life would be without the positive influences of these and so many other holy women.  Thank you, sisters.

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share food, wash feet, change world

5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him… 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:5, 12-15)

A lot of people who share my political opinions are confused about my Christian beliefs.  How is it that I can support anarchist ideas of anti-anthoritarianism and doing away with structures that put a single leader in charge of others, and then also be associated with a religion that has a long, sad history of abusing power and elevating leaders who unfairly dictate how the rest of the world should act?

Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) is one of my answers.  It’s the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he was arrested and executed by the state authorities of the Roman empire.  But there’s also another event that is remembered on this day: Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  He was the leader, the teacher, the one they looked up to for guidance, the one they followed.  And he turned that top-down power dynamic on its head.  He stepped out of the role of leader, and did the most menial of tasks, the job that servants and women (those lowest in social standing at the time) were expected to do.  I think it’s an example of what the Zapatistas of southern Mexico call mandar obedeciendo — leading by obeying.

Jesus told his followers it was also up to them to wash the feet of others.  This was not a one time symbolic performance, this was a model of how to live in community.  It is the task of Christians to continue this practice of washing feet, not just in a ritual performed once a year, but by finding ways to lead by serving, by challenging the notion that having power means wielding it over another, and instead sharing that power to serve the entire community.  It’s a belief and practice that informs both my faith and political ideals.

Share a meal, and wash one another’s feet.  No, it’s not exactly the anarchist slogan of “no gods, no masters,” but I think it describes a beautiful way for transforming the world, a way that transcends both religion and politics.

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fifteen years later

“You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life.
And at times the fact of (his) absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.
(He) is dead. You are alive.
So live.”
– Neil Gaiman, Brief Lives

I dreamed of my cousin.  An early morning dream.  In my dream he was alive.  There had been no accident, just a big misunderstanding.  He just needed to go away for a long time, and his absence just appeared to be permanent.  In my dream my refusal to fully accept his death wasn’t proof of emotional weakness, it was proof of my faith.  I was the one who had faith.  He knew I wouldn’t be shocked to see him again.

I woke up feeling grateful for such a visceral dream, a dream where I could touch him again, a dream where everyone was happy and relieved and we could focus on mundane joys like watching my nephew play.  I woke up smiling.

And then the morning coffee is brewed and breakfast dishes need cleaning.  And it’s been fifteen years.

Some days it feels like a lifetime ago.  Some days I weep like it just happened.

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direction

In need of direction.  Could not get a read on my internal compass.  Spinning.

I went to the ocean, I sat and tried to listen.

The ocean said, “up.”

Up.

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