Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Praying for George W. Bush

I delivered the following sermon to the community of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, Minneapolis, in January 2003.

Sadly, its contents (and its prayer) remain as relevant and vital today as they did four years ago, especially in light of such things as the ongoing US occupation of Iraq and this occupations role in increasing global terrorism; the moral and legal outrage that is Guantánamo Bay; and the reputed plans of the Bush Administration to expand its so-called “War on Terror” by launching military strikes against Iran.

I offer today this sermon (and its accompanying readings) as both a prayer and a Lenten reflection.


Contemporary Reading
by Aurora Levins Morales

They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, further than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace. But who can find the way?

This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.

This time, that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none.

Scripture Reading
Matthew 25: 34-40

Then the ruler will say . . . “Come you that are blessed by my Father-Mother, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the just will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

And the ruler will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Praying for George W. Bush
A Sermon by Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
Minneapolis, Minnesota
January 12, 2003

Recently, I’ve been praying for George W. Bush.

I realize that some of you may find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

And it’s not just Geroge W. Bush I’ve been praying for, but Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair and indeed all people who, rightly or wrongly, are in positions of earthly power.

You see, I consider many of these so-called leaders to be enemies of humanity, enemies of that abundant life that our brother Jesus spoke of. I hold this view as I consider many of these leaders to be fundamentalists of one type or another – religious fundamentalists, free market fundamentalists – it makes little difference to me.

Fundamentalism is a form of idolatry. We think of idolatry as putting something above God. Yet if we believe in an incarnational God, than idolatry must also be understood as putting something above people – within and through whom God is incarnated.

All fundamentalists reject the essential bonds of human community and connection, opting instead to idolize limited, exclusionary and self-serving things. These “things” might be a literal interpretation of a sacred text, or a rigid adherence to a particular economic agenda. It could be the love of money and power manifested in a political doctrine of “full spectrum dominance” – an empire-building doctrine currently endorsed by those in power in this country.

Whatever the form of idolatry, it is everyday people – be they in Baghdad or Lower Manhattan – who lose out to the idolatry of those in positions of power.

It’s taken me a while to get to the point of being able to pray for those I view as “my enemies.” I recently realized that in part, popular culture – and Hollywood in particular – has had a lot to do with my struggle to live out this aspect of my Christian calling. Let me explain.

Just before Christmas, I saw the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy – The Two Towers. It’s an undeniably impressive film. But like so many works of popular film and literature, it was on a very basic level, a cop-out.

In the battle scenes of The Two Towers, the enemy is comprised of hoards of creatures known as orcs. They’re hideous, blood-thirsty creatures devoid of reason or morality. Their depiction in The Two Towers is utterly dehumanized; they are utterly “the other.”

Accordingly, it becomes very seductive to buy into the cult of war that the film lifts up as heroic and, indeed, necessary if evil is to be conquered. Such an understanding of the use and necessity of violence has theologically been termed “redemptive violence.”

I struggle with the concept of redemptive violence. Increasingly, I see it as the flawed and dangerous idea that out of violence – and I include here political violence such as acts of war and terrorism – can come ultimate good; can come authentic peace. Redemptive violence is a primitive notion – one that reflects a primitive and limited understanding of God and a simplistic, black and white view of the world.

Such a view is clearly reflected in The Two Towers, where the bad guys are ugly orcs and the good guys are brave hobbits, wise wizards or handsome kings. It’s all so clear cut and straight forward. Such simplicity in literature and film is not new, but I find myself hungering for a more honest, a more authentic representation of the human condition.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.” So wrote the great Russian writer Solzhenitsyn. Yet like all who are open to the reality of the human condition, Solzhenitsyn knew a disturbing truth: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Real life, as each one of us knows, is indeed much more complex, much more ambiguous than any Hollywood blockbuster. And I think this fact is especially, and sometimes painfully, discerned by those who understand that as humans we are called to be active and loving agents of God’s transforming presence in the world.

That’s an awesome privilege and responsibility when you stop and think about it. We are called, like our brother Jesus, to be the incarnation of God’s saving and transforming love in the world. This means we have to engage the world in all its complexity, enter into all kinds of relationships, take risks, build communities, reach out to others, recognize ourself and God in those different from us.

I believe that it’s always been through such activity – such compassionate engagement – that the sacred has made him/herself known to the world. Relating is God’s very essence, and accordingly relationships mediate God to us.

The love that we allow to infuse our relationships with others is truly the measure of our awareness, openness and active dwelling in and with God. And this love cannot solely be understood as a warm, glowing feeling inside. This love, in fact, is a restlessly active reality – urging us to ever-new and expanding levels of consciousness about ourselves and how we are to live in the world.

It was just such an expansion of consciousness – informed by years of compassionate engagement with the world – that compelled Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to declare that “nationalism has been superceded by the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.”

For Dorothy Day, the Mystical Body of Christ was an expression of the indestructible interconnection of human beings with God and one another. Dorothy maintained that Christ – the living spirit of God – was beyond the confines of any humanly organized religious structure. She infuriated conservative Catholics by declaring as heresy the idea that the Mystical Body includes only the Roman Catholic Church. “The Mystical Body is the inseparable oneness of the human race,” insisted Dorothy Day.

We have an articulation of the ancient doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ on our beautiful banner – one which proclaims that, “The Body of Christ is Living with AIDS.” It’s a proclamation that affirms the belief that God dwells in each one of us – and accordingly, experiences the joys and pains that we experience.

Because of this, Christ transcends boundaries of race and nation: “There is no nationality,” Dorothy Day insisted. “The only foreigner is the one who does not have Christ within. But in all human creation [and I would add all non-human creation as well] there is no one that does not have Christ within. If only men and women could recognize this, there could never be war,” said Dorothy.

Well clearly, men and women – and I’d argue men in particular – don’t recognize the indwelling presence of God within each of us and thus the eternal truth that we are all brothers and sisters, that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Tragically, for many who find themselves in positions of dominating power, or who are trampled upon by such dysfunctional power, the incarnational God is superceded by idols, by those expressions of fundamentalism I spoke of earlier.

Which brings me back to my recent praying for our various world leaders – those men who seem determined to label and treat whole sections of the human family as “evil-doers,” or “Western devils,” or “terrorists.” I’m surprised the term “orcs” hasn’t been thrown out there.

So, what is it exactly that I’ve been praying for? Well, if you receive the church newsletter you probably already know, as in the January newsletter you'll find “A Prayer for 2003.” I guess that’s one good thing about being editor of the newsletter: You get to plug your own prayers! Anyway, my prayer for George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and indeed each and every one of us, goes like this:

Let us pray for the fearful, broken world of humanity,
pray that each one of us may seek and find deep within,
the flame-like seed of compassion.
May this compassion be lovingly cultivated by all
so that it blooms in desires and actions for justice, community,
and a sustainable world for all living things.
And may the fragrance of such blossoming
be recognized and celebrated
as peace in our lives and in our world.


So, beneath the flowery words and imagery, what I'm basically asking for is that we all open ourselves to the presence of God within ourselves and others. I want us to hunger for one another’s stories, to be prepared to experience one another’s joys and hardships, to seek out alternative sources of news and views that lift up those voices and stories that are marginalized or ignored by the mainstream media.

Indeed, I’d like to see us become the media – jamming the airways and the switchboards and the mailboxes of the corporate media with messages that challenge and oppose those life-denying messages we are daily inundated with – those messages urging unconscious consumption and unfettered accumulation of resources, wealth and power, those messages of war, destruction and death – all in the name of “national security.”

I guess I want a revolution. At least that’s what I’ve always thought I wanted. But lately – and maybe praying this prayer has led to this – I’ve been more focused on evolution. Evolution, unlike revolution, requires participation from each one of us.

For example, the opening to compassion by those people in this country fixated on the false god of empire is dependent on the engaging, sharing, and challenging actions of those of us committed to a living, incarnational God.

I see my life in activism as a reflection of my commitment to such an incarnational God. This life in activism has shown me that mindless ranting and elitist pontificating merely result in polarization. Lately, when I participate in various rallies protesting the policies of the Bush regime, I attempt to engage those who invariably turn up to support such policies.

I don’t set out to convert them to my worldview. Instead, I simply ask them questions and then listen. Their responses provide opportunities for challenge, for them and me – usually through further and more pointed questioning.

I guess I aim to build bridges, to sow seeds, or better still, awaken both of us to that seed of compassion deep within. I’m not saying that I’m always so measured or conversational in my approach. I can get pretty fiery. Yet I consciously seek to always lovingly challenge, rather than hatefully condemn as I believe we’re all called to be God’s loving challenge to those who have chosen to channel their energy into life-denying practices, policies, and modes of thinking.

Greedy and destructive power fueled by unquestioning obedience, is extremely vulnerable to compassionate rebellion. And it’s just such compassionate challenge and rebellion that can facilitate spiritual and moral evolution.

Such evolution may indeed led to positive social transformation – to revolution, if you like. Yet I doubt that any form of violent revolution from without will ever lead to inner spiritual evolution. And so while my hope for social and political revolution remains, my practical focus is on facilitating spiritual and thus social and political evolution – my own and others.

It's an enormous task – one that requires nurturing from a supportive community, a community like Spirit of the Lakes, for instance. It also requires an attitude that actively seeks out signs of hope rather than wallowing in the numerous examples of injustice and oppression we have in the world. I’ll close with some examples of signs of hope that keep me going.

I find it hopeful that the people of Brazil have elected a president willing to suspend the purchase of twelve military jets so that Brazil can spend more on social programs and feed the hungry.

I find hope in the upsurge of independent media outlets and publications, and in the fact that the war-mongering and empire-building of the U.S. government has served to mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to lift their voices and say “No! to an invasion of Iraq.

Closer to home, I find hope in the programs and projects of our church – and in particular those of the Education for Liberation program which I coordinate – projects and programs that provide opportunities for us to compassionately engage the world.

I find hope in the young people of this community – in Logan and Mason and their great love and respect for the environment. In Jonathon’s willingness to share his enthusiasm for the books he’s reading and the films he wants to see. I find hope and encouragement in the way Olivia, Maya and Luke spontaneously and trustingly engage the children they encounter at the Families Moving Forward shelter at Lyndale UCC.

I find hope in Kevin’s exuberance and longing for human connection despite all he’s been through prior to his adoption by Fintan. I find hope in Beka’s activism, her willingness to journey – geographically and spiritually – so as to stand in solidarity with others and model for all of us an active and compassionate engagement with the world.

I find hope in Esphenia and Pablo’s presence among us and in particular of Pablo’s brave seeking of an authentic life far from his homeland and his openness to share his boundless energy and talents – most recently in organizing our community’s Christmas pageant.

And I find hope in the trusting, inquisitive and loving spirit displayed in the smiles, hugs, and energy of the youngest members of our community – of Bella, Jordan, Brin, Keenan, Kaylee and Eli.

In the lives of our young people – beautifully attuned to the inward love of God – we have well-springs of hope. For me, it’s a hope that serves to illuminate and nurture that flame-like seed of compassion within. We all have this seed, this presence of the sacred. Let us honor this presence, celebrate it, embody it.

And what of our enemies? What of those who ignore or distort this presence, and who accordingly – either consciously or unconsciously – trample upon the body of Christ through their treatment of others and the environment?

Perhaps a start would be to stop thinking of such people as our “enemies,” and instead as our brothers and sisters who have lost sight of the presence of God in themselves and others, as our brothers and sisters who have turned from the incarnational God in their sacrificing of humanity (theirs and others) on the altars of idols.

Maybe then we can more readily commit ourselves as individuals and as communities to compassionately engage and lovingly challenge them – recognizing that our salvation is ultimately connected to theirs.

I find it very difficult at times to consider the likes of Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush as my brothers, but stronger than this aversion is my conviction that until I and all of us do, the Body of Christ remains anemic, and the fullness of life that our brother Jesus spoke about, elusive. Our challenge is to embody and share that fullness through invigorating and compassionate engagement – even, indeed especially, with those we consider our “enemies.”

Michael J. Bayly
January 12, 2003

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reflections on the Overlooked “Children of Men”

The 79th Annual Academy Awards ceremony takes place tomorrow night in Los Angeles. Many fine films have been nominated for well-deserved recognition within the various categories of awards.

Yet, as always, there are some films that have been overlooked. One such film, in my view, is director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Like last year’s The Constant Gardener, Children of Men is a topical and (no doubt for many) uncomfortable film. Well-crafted and impeccably acted, the film takes a mesmerizing yet terrifyingly grim view of humanity’s not-too-distant future. In doing so, it reflects many of the all-too common injustices and horrors of our present day – xenophobia, the forced detention and torture of immigrants and/or those deemed “our enemies,” environmental degradation, and the many forms of human violence– including terrorism and war.

And like The Constant Gardener, Children of Men inexplicably missed out on a Best Picture nomination. In its place it seems we have the cute and humorous, though inconsequential, Little Miss Sunshine. Now, don’t get me wrong, Little Miss Sunshine is a well-made and enjoyable film – but Best Picture?

This post, however, is not about the (numerous) shortcomings of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts and reflections on Cuarón’s powerful film, Children of Men.

A world without children

Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in Britain in the year 2027, a time that has not seen the birth of a child anywhere in the world for the past eighteen years. Although a global flu pandemic is mentioned to have taken place just prior to this infertility crisis, no real explanation is ever given for this tragedy – one that has plunged humanity into a state of hopelessness. The graffitied plea for “The last one to die [to] please turn out the light,” says it all.

The world outside of Britain is in an even worse state of chaos and despair. The film attests to this by providing tantalizing though disturbing snippets of news reports on such calamities as the “siege of Seattle, now entering Day 1000,” and brief glimpses of newspaper clippings depicting various cities – Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, New York engulfed in flames.

Sectarian violence and nuclear war, along with their ensuing environmental degradation, have devastated whole continents. Only Britain, it seems, has any functioning government; any semblance of order – yet at a terrible price.

In the Britain of 2027, all immigrants and refugees (or “fugees” as they’re called) are “hunted down like cockroaches.” Public service announcements remind citizens of the illegality of hiding fugees, and of the necessity of Britain’s citizenry to “soldier on” under its government’s totalitarian policies.

Much of the first part of the film is set in London – gray, grimy and periodically rocked by terrorist bombings. More than one reviewer has noted that the film’s depiction of the look and conditions of the futuristic British capital (and of the Bexhill refugee camp) evoke the reality of present-day Baghdad. Indeed, as the New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis notes: [Children of Men] imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?”

Adds film critic Tim Robey, “As a virtuoso exercise in the choreography of chase and carnage, Children of Men packs quite a wallop.”

The attacks on London are described by the government as the work of a terrorist organization known as “the Fishes,” a group dedicated to liberating the fugees who are held in deplorable conditions, either in cages on the streets of the capital, or in places like the seaside town of Bexhill – now converted into a vast and volatile refugee camp. Bexhill, notes Robey is “an infernal war zone . . . a jittery locus of ordeal that makes Black Hawk Down look like a scuffle in a souk.”

Without doubt, the film is a bleak and pessimistic glimpse into humanity’s all-too possible future.

Yet in an interview with MovieWeb, Cuarón observes that, “I have a very grim view, not of the future, [but] the present; I have a very hopeful view of the future . . . I believe an evolution of human understanding . . . is happening in the youngest generation. I believe that the . . . generation to come is the one that is going to come with new schemes and new perspectives on things.”

A glimmer of hope

Cuarón’s glimmer of hope is reflected in his film, though certainly not in its opening sequences. In these first scenes we’re introduced to Theo (played by Clive Owen), a former activist now merely existing as a jaded and forlorn bureaucrat. After narrowly surviving a bomb blast in a crowded London cafe, Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). She requires his help to get a young fugee woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. The young girl in question, named Kee, is pregnant, and Julian, a member of the Fishes, is determined to get her to the Human Project, a group of scientists based on the Azores and dedicated to curing the infertility that is bringing about humanity’s agonizing and protracted death.

Yet not all of the members of the Fishes want to see Kee leave Britain. As fugees, she and her child could be used as powerful pawns in efforts to incite an uprising against the government and its inhumane immigration policies. The problem, of course, is that this particular faction of the Fishes is just as violent and inhumane as the government they’re dedicated to overthrowing.

What follows is a suspenseful and, at times, grueling chase-movie – one that follows Theo’s attempts to get Kee safely to the coast and the waiting Human Project ship, appropriately named “Tomorrow.” Ironically, the most effective way for Theo and Kee to reach their destination is through the Bexhill refugee camp. Yet members of the Fishes are in hot pursuit and they’ll stop at nothing to get possession of Kee and her child.

I appreciate the fact that Cuarón’s film has, as Manohla Dargis notes: “none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.”

Elaborating on this observation, Dargis writes:

Most of the people doing the preaching turn out to be dreadfully, catastrophically misguided; everyone else seems to be holding on, like Theo’s friend Jasper, a former political cartoonist who bides his time with laughter and a lot of homegrown weed while listening to Beatles covers and rap. Still others, like Theo’s wealthy cousin, Nigel, who’s stashing away masterpieces like Michelangelo’s “David” for safekeeping in his private museum while Rome, New York and probably Guernica burn, can only smile as they swill another glass of wine. Hope isn’t the only thing that floats, as a song on the soundtrack reminds us.

Keeping hope alive

I found it interesting that those who help Kee and Theo the most are women (Julian, the mid-wife Miriam, the Roma refugee Marichka) and a non-typical male in the shape of Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo’s old hippie friend. Jasper’s outsider’s status also gifts him with a potentially dangerous perspective on the carnage plaguing London: “Every time the government gets into trouble,” he observes, “a bomb goes off.”

In light of this observation on the role of women and non-conforming males in the film, I couldn’t help but think that the “children of men,” i.e. the population of this bleak future world, suffer as they do as the result of being products of a society dominated by what Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths has described as the “masculine, active, aggressive, rational, scientific mind.”

In such a world, qualities of the “feminine, passive [i.e. receptive in a dynamic and creative way], patient, intuitive and poetic mind” are scorned and thus absent (or eradicated) from decision-making processes and institutions – be they government or rebel.

As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not limiting the determining of my definition of masculine and feminine to whatever anatomical apparatus we may have between our legs. As Australian author Caroline Jones has perceptively observed, when talking about the masculine/feminine opposites, we’re actually referring to an “attitude of mind, not with biological gender.”

In the world of Children of Men, it is those women and men open to embodying the feminine qualities outlined above, who make the crucial sacrifices necessary to keep hope alive and thus hold (and protect) the key for humanity's future. They do this in a world brought to its knees by those obsessed with the shadow-side of the masculine – a shadow-side marked by domination, violence, authoritarianism, and the various phallic-shaped weapons of death and destruction.

“The world today,” says Bede Griffiths, “needs to recover [the] sense of feminine power, which is complementary to the masculine and without which [humanity] becomes dominating, sterile, and destructive.” Children of Men graphically depicts such a state of fallen humanity.

Theo’s journey

Yet in the midst of such brokenness I found it compelling (and hopeful) to watch Theo’s transformation from impotent cog in the machinery of a masculine-run-amok society, to an individual who, while maintaining the best qualities of the masculine “attitude of mind,” is also willing and able to let himself express grief and to be tender and caring – almost mothering – of Kee. (Why is it that a man in touch with his feelings and willing and able to show his emotions is so threatening to some Christians? This is even all the more perplexing given that Jesus employed the image of a protective mother hen gathering her chicks under her sheltering wing, when describing his love – a love which, incidentally, we’re called as Christians to emulate.)

My sense is that on some unconscious level, Theo comes to realize that in order for him and Kee (and thus humanity) to survive, the world produced by the “children of men” must be radically transformed. And for this to happen we have to start caring, we have to start looking out for one another – including those deemed “the other” by our fearful governments.

In short, we have to embody compassion – a quality that, as theologian Sally B. Purvis reminds us, embraces and celebrates “relationality, mutuality, and solidarity as theological and ethical values.”

Of course, the embodiment of compassion can only happen when the feminine in all of us, along with the masculine, is recognized, honored, and embodied. The frenetic pace of Cuarón’s film implies that we urgently need to wake up to this realization. Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that the film’s depiction of Theo’s (and by extension, our own) waking up to this reality, is intrinsically connected to the second chance that the film’s offers to the sterile, devastated, and violent world of the “children of men.”

I appreciate the way Theo’s journey of consciousness is visually presented: “Every so often,” observes the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, “the camera pointedly drifts away from Theo, as it does with the dead policemen, to show us a weeping old woman locked in a cage or animals burning on pyres. In time, though, the camera comes closer to Theo as he opens his eyes – to a kitten crawling up his leg, to trees rustling in the wind – until, in one of the most astonishing scenes of battle I’ve ever seen on film, it is running alongside him, trying to keep pace with a man who has finally found a reason to keep going.”

Ethan Alter, reviewing the movie for Film Journal International, echoes Dargis’ observation when he notes that: “It’s through his grueling experiences on the road with Kee that Theo remembers how to care for a person and, by extension, a cause.”

Cuarón himself reflects upon this theme in the film’s production notes: “I’ve seen those beautiful photographs of Earth taken from outer space,” he says, “and you see clouds and you see the shape of continents . . . but what you don’t see are the colors of each of the countries you see in maps. These invisible lines are created by ideologies – sometimes, absurd ones. I have to ask what right do we have to close the door on people that are in need? These complex issues are being thought about in America and Europe, and looked at very differently – how are immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers going to be treated? This is something happening now – the near future is now. I think all of us working on the film thought that you have to get the human experience [in order] to get to [authentic] social and political [understanding]. It’s something that needs compassion more than an ideology.”

The key

In the end, I think that it is the compassion brought to life in those attempting to help and protect Kee that proves to be the human quality worthy of hope, risk, and sacrifice. This belief in and hope for compassion, suggests the film, keeps us going in spite of our own failings and inadequacies; in spite of the greed, hubris and violence (spiritual and as well as physical) that we encounter daily as a result of the policies and actions of governments, political groups of various stripes, religious structures and traditions, and various corporate entities and practices.

It’s a long and difficult journey to a better tomorrow. Struggle and sacrifice are unavoidable. Yet we possess within each one of us the key to this more just and compassionate tomorrow. This key is both the divine call and potential we all have to be compassionate, to be, in other words, incarnations of God’s transforming love in the world. Throughout our lives we’re called to birth this compassion again and again through our words and actions.

In it’s stunning and moving representation of the call and struggle to embody compassion in a world overtaken by dominating power, self-interest, mindless consumption, lack of creativity, and violence, Children of Men’s depiction of Theo’s journey lifts up a template for us all.

Of course, it’s not a new template. Indeed, it’s as old as humanity; one that is written on the human heart and which has been lovingly and courageously embodied by men and women throughout the ages and across all cultures. Yet it seems we need to be periodically reminded of it and its call for compassion in our lives and in our world. I’m glad there are filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón who are unafraid to allow their films to creatively and entertainingly serve as such reminders.

I can well imagine that Cuarón bleak vision of humanity’s future worked against Children of Men in the eyes of some critics and audience members. Yet in averting our gaze from the film’s depiction of a ruined and despairing world we can easily overlook the film’s portrayal of humanity’s hope and struggle for compassion.

Like the seemingly insignificant emergence of a flower through a near-imperceptible concrete crack, this portrayal, achieved primarily through the film’s focus on Theo and his journey, conveys something our battered world desperately needs each one of us to cherish, honor, and emulate: compassion.

For this reason alone, with or without a Best Picture nomination, Children of Men is a film worth seeing.

See also the previous Wild Reed post: Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Lenten Journey

One of the two books of Lenten reflections I’ll be using this Lent* is Springtime of the Soul, produced by the Congregation of St. Joseph. As a candidate for consociate membership with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, I was recently gifted with a copy of this particular Lenten guide.
In the book’s introduction, Marianne Race, CSJ, reminds us that, “Lent is a time of holy waiting, waiting for death and new life.” Accordingly, Springtime of the Soul’s collection of Scripture readings and reflections encourages us to “trust the transforming power of God’s life within [us],” and reminds us that, “What is given to you will flower and rise in beauty even as Jesus rises from the dead at Easter.”

The second text I look forward to spending time with this Lent is Edward Hays’ The Lenten Labyrinth: Daily Reflections for the Journey of Lent. Hays describes the season of Lent as “a great adventure and a journey of transformation which holds the power to change – to radically enrich – [our] way of thinking, loving, and believing.”

Hays also reminds us that as we begin such a journey today, Ash Wednesday, we’re not alone: “Know that as you prepare to make the first step on this journey, you are doing so in the company of many other pilgrims,” he writes. “Not only do you walk in faith with others around the world today, you are accompanied in your pursuit of holiness by the holy ones of previous ages.”

In addition to using these two Lenten resources to facilitate prayer and reflection, I also hope to spend time actually walking a labyrinth, as well as engaging in some creative work with mandalas – something I hope to write more about in a future post.

All of these endeavors seek to create time and space within which I may be open to the transforming presence of the sacred - both deep within me and beyond me. They are ways of saying: “I am here, Great Spirit. I am here.”

Such a trusting, expectant attitude reflects the words of Marianne Race, CSJ, who, in the introduction of Springtime of the Soul observes that during Lent we are asked only “to be soft ground that we might receive the gift, the seed, and allow it to be broken open and nourished; allow that which is already planted within [us] to come to life.”

Accordingly, in these quiet times that I will be intentionally cultivating during Lent, I will trust that God’s transforming Love will guide my thoughts and prayers, and lead me on that journey of transformation and radical enrichment referred to by Edward Hays; that Spirit-filled journey of consciousness and compassion which our brother Jesus so beautifully embodied, and calls each one of us to likewise embody.

My creating of such sacred time and space will inevitably mean other things in my life will have to be put aside, minimized, given up. Yet rather than focusing on what I’m “giving up” for Lent, I’ve long found it more helpful and encouraging to focus on what I’m proactively creating; what I’m lovingly embracing for Lent.

I realize that this may not work for everyone. Nevertheless, because an almost masochistic approach to Lent can be encouraged by some elements within the Church, I feel compelled to offer this alternative way of looking at Lent – especially to those in need of a new and re-energizing perspective on this important time of the liturgical year.

Whatever words, imagery, and undertakings you employ in your understanding of and participation in Lent, may this Lenten season be a blessed time of renewal and transformation for you.

Behold, now is the acceptable time;
behold now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 6:2

* The traditions of Lent come from the season’s origins as a time when the church prepared candidates, or “catechumens,” for their baptism into the Body of Christ. It eventually became a season of preparation not only for catechumens but also for the whole congregation. Examination of conscience, study, prayer, and works of love are disciplines historically associated with Lent. Conversion - literally the “turning around” or reorientation of our lives towards God - is the theme of Lent. Both as individuals and as a community, we look inward and reflect on our readiness to follow Jesus in his journey towards the cross. The forty days of Lent correspond to the forty-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the forty-year journey of Israel from slavery to a new community.

See also the previous Wild Reed post: The Onward Call.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers

I’m attempting to bring together here at the Wild Reed the various articles I’ve had published and the sermons I’ve delivered over the past seven years.

Accordingly, I present today the sermon I delivered on October 19, 2003 at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ. I was reminded of this particular sermon after sharing time and conversation with a homeless man at a Minneapolis bus stop yesterday.


On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
By Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United of Christ
October 19, 2003

Contemporary Reading
By Lilla Watson

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Scripture Reading
Mark 8:22-25

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought to Jesus a blind man whom they begged Jesus to touch. Jesus took the man by the hand and led him out out of the village; and when Jesus had put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid hands on him, Jesus asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again; and the man looked intently and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly.

By Michael J. Bayly

I have somewhat of an affinity for the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Jesus is a driven individual. There’s an almost breathless insistence to Mark’s narrative and Jesus is the driving force at the epicenter of one whirlwind of activity after another – so much so that at one point his friends “lay hold on him,” thinking, “He is beside himself.”

If one wants to get theological about it, Mark’s gospel reflects what is called a “low Christology” – one which emphasizes the humanity, even the fallibility of Jesus. In today’s reading, for instance, Jesus doesn’t quite get it right in his first attempt at restoring the sight of the blind man of Bethsaida. Elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is roughed-up by a crowd in his hometown.

John’s gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus divinity, his otherworldliness. Accordingly, there’s never any mention of the use of bodily fluids in John’s accounts of Jesus’ healing work. And in Nazareth, Jesus mysteriously slips through the hostile crowd without even so much as a finger being laid upon him.

One of the most insightful commentaries I’ve read on the Gospel of Mark was written by Australian punk rocker Nick Cave – lead singer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. “The Christ the Church offers us,” writes Nick, “denies Christ his humanity, offering up a figure that we can perhaps ‘praise’ but to whom we can never relate.”

“The essential humanness of Mark’s Christ,” continues Nick, “provides us with a blueprint for our own lives, so that we have something we can aspire to, rather than revere, [something] that can lift us free of the mundanity of our experiences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy. Merely to praise Christ in his perfectness keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Christ came as a liberator . . . and it was through his example that he gave our imagination the freedom to rise and to fly. In short, to be Christlike.”

I resonate with the words of this punk rocker as I too relate to a more human understanding of Christ. I too connect with a Jesus who knew suffering, struggle, and doubt in his life, yet who nevertheless continued to strive to express God’s unconditional love through pro-active and compassionate engagement with all whom he came into contact.

Yet Mark’s gospel not only tells us something about the nature of Jesus. It also has something to say about the nature of the journey by which we become Christlike – that often lifelong journey whereby we become conduits and expressions of that same transforming and liberating power that our brother Jesus embodied when he walked the dusty roads of the Middle East.

And as our scripture reading today illustrates, such a journey requires more than one attempt. It’s a process – often long and arduous – and comprised of various stages of insight we must go through before we can begin to see clearly.

It’s also a journey that we undertake both individually and collectively. Jesus walked and interacted with the blind man and the townspeople of Bethsaida. Indeed, the blind man was called to be an active participant in his own transformation. He had to respond to Jesus, and Jesus had to ask the right questions and listen to the response in order to proceed further. In a very real way, the blind man’s participation was crucial in helping Jesus become Christ, in helping Jesus incarnate and send forth the transforming sacred power that lay deep within him and which lies deep within each one of us.

How do we recognize and tap into this sacred power, this Christ within us?

Who are the people we walk with, interact with, who call us to recognize, welcome, and bring this power to birth through our words and actions?

The answers, I know, are many and varied. Yet this morning I’d like to share with you how my interaction with folks in the Families Moving Forward program have helped me recognize the embodiment of this transforming sacred power, this Christ, in both myself and others.

As you know, Families Moving Forward (FMF) is an emergency housing program for families here in the Twin Cities. It’s a model that uses one facility for the Day Center, and churches for the overnight hosting of homeless families. FMF is a free service – one that as well as providing emergency shelter for homeless families, also offers support and counseling in setting goals, getting jobs, finding affordable housing, locating household furnishings, and developing family budgets.

Four times a year folks from Spirit of the Lakes partner with members of Lyndale United Church of Christ to serve as hosts for families in the program when they stay for one week at Lyndale UCC. Our last involvement with this program was in June – an involvement which I used as the basis for an “immersion experience” which I had to undertake as part of my studies at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

My “immersion” into FMF involved being one of several “evening hosts” and the sole “overnight host” for three nights. With the other evening hosts from Lyndale UCC and Spirit of the Lakes, I prepared and served the evening meals and cleaned-up afterwards. Later, we helped with childcare and/or assisted parents make packed lunches for the next day.

As the overnight host my duties were to ensure a safe environment during the night, provide a presence in case of any emergency situation, and to ensure that families were up by 6:30 a.m. the following morning for breakfast and the arrival of the bus which transports them to the Day Center. In June, FMF was accommodating seven families – four of which were housed at Lyndale UCC.

My intention from the beginning of my immersion experience with FMF was to interview members of the guest families, yet I soon realized that the families needed to get to know and trust me before I could start asking questions. Most volunteers come and stay for one or two “duties” – meal preparation, meal serving, childcare, overnight host, etc. I was different in that I stayed for three nights in a row and participated in all the various duties. The families genuinely appreciated this. They liked the stability of seeing a person they recognized each afternoon when they arrived from the Day Center – the same person they’d say goodnight to and who would greet them first thing in the morning. This consistency was especially helpful for the children.

For my part, I appreciated and enjoyed my time with the families. I got to know them in much deeper ways over the three days than if I had volunteered for a meal or one evening of serving as overnight host. If nothing else, this experience has shown me that volunteering for a short period of time, as important as it is, does not always allow one to really walk with others and share in their situation to any great degree. I’m acutely aware, however, that given the hectic nature of our way of life, not everyone can afford the time to do what I was able to do in June.

During this time I also soon realized that compassionate, transforming engagement with others is often most powerfully experienced through the simplest of things. For instance, immediately after dinner, I’d take the children over to the park opposite Lyndale UCC where we would enjoy the wading pool. Splashing around with the laughing children and talking informally with their mothers, I soon gained the trust of parents and children alike. Again, my continual presence aided in this immensely. As well, I genuinely enjoyed the time I spent with them – not only as a “volunteer helper,” but as a friend, as someone learning with them as we walked together.

By the time of my last evening with the program, each of the mothers was happy to sit down and be interviewed by me about their experiences of being homeless. The different responses I received were very insightful, and with help today from others within our community, I’ll share some of them with you.

My name is Rebecca and I’m here with my five children. We came to Minneapolis from Chicago last November. We initially stayed with a cousin until this relative’s boyfriend got very violent. We came into the Families Moving Forward program in February. It is our first time in a homeless shelter though I’ve known homeless folks before and so know that those who are homeless are often just ordinary folks. It’s depressing to have to be at the shelter at certain times. It’s very regimented – though it does provide services that we need.


My name is Laura and I’m here with my infant daughter Rose. My daughter’s father left the state after we broke-up last December. At first I moved in with a friend who helped with daycare. That fell through, however, as my friend couldn’t get paid by the county. I then lost both my jobs. We stayed with family for a while before getting into the Families Moving Forward program. Not many places accept a parent with only one child. At Mary Jo Copeland’s place, you have to have more than two children to get in. With only one child, I had to fight for a spot here.

Having a child with me while experiencing homelessness is the hardest part of my situation. As a teenager I knew homelessness but I could handle it then. I could easily move from friend’s place to friend’s place. Having a child, however, is hard – for both of us.

I think that this country is being built on the backs of the poor and homeless. The amount the government spends on the military is stupid, and George W. Bush seems more concerned about what’s going on over in Iraq than here. He wants to bully the rest of the world while everything here goes down hill – nothing for schools, nothing for homeless people. Things are messed up.


My name is Linda and I’m here with my three children. After my divorce, my children and I went from being very wealthy to being very poor. Being poor and homeless is like having a great glass jar put over you – there’s no room to breathe or move. You can look out at everything but can’t do anything.

We took a 30-hour bus ride from New York to Minneapolis and ended up in a downtown shelter for one month. We hated it. We then stayed briefly with a friend. In January, I sent the children to stay with their grandmother for five months, while I stayed at Harbor Lights Shelter in downtown Minneapolis with my boyfriend. The place was filled with crackheads, prostitutes, and addicts. You had to take everything with you – you couldn’t leave anything at the shelter during the day. You also had to sleep on all your possessions at night; otherwise they’d be stolen.

With my children gone, my boyfriend was the only thing that kept me going. Yet even so I once considered jumping off a bridge. When my children came back to me, I left Harbor Lights. We lived day-by-day – one night at a hotel, one night with friends – never knowing if we’d be sleeping under a bridge the following night. Via the Dignity Center we got into the Families Moving Forward program.

Families Moving Forward is a hundred times better than anything we’ve been in. The main problem is that you just get used to one host church and then you have to move on to the next one.

After being unemployed for seven months, I recently secured a good-paying job. Yet I had to start at a time early in the morning when no buses were running to my work site. I attempted to get transportation assistance – money for a taxi. The man I spoke to at the county was harsh and cold – and kept looking at his watch. He suggested I get another job.

My experience of poverty and homelessness has given me a unique compassion for poor and homeless people. I now see things that most people can’t see. I’ve become very knowing when it comes to recognizing signs of poverty and homelessness. People experiencing such things usually aren’t dressed in rags and asking for money on street corners. Because of this new awareness I’ve become more thankful for my situation – for the fact that things are improving. I see God as a loving father who has gotten me and my children through some very difficult times.


My conversations with the homeless mothers at FMF reminded me of writer and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and her book, Nickel and Dimed (On Not Getting By in America). The book documents her experiences of going undercover and attempting to make ends meet while working at various low-income jobs – including a stint at a Wal-Mart here in Minneapolis.

When Ehrenreich was a guest on a Minnesota Public Radio morning show she was confronted by an irate listener who criticized her for referring to some Americans as “poor.” From this caller’s perspective there were no people living in poverty in America as he equated poverty only with the starving masses in Africa and India. Such a lack of understanding confirms just how invisible many of the poor and homeless are in the United States. Yet according to Ehrenreich, the problem “isn’t the ‘invisible poor’; it’s the vision-impaired rich.”

“As many have noted,” she writes, “these fortunates inhabit an increasingly insular world of their own, far from the customary venues of the poor or even the working class. They live in fortress-like apartment buildings, gated communities, or inaccessible exurbs. They do not use public transportation and are unlikely to send their children to public schools.”

This type of isolation means that the fact that a substantial number of those living in homeless shelters are actually working, never gets out there and, thus, never helps undermine the stereotypical notions many have of the poor. Indeed, the term “the working poor” is probably foreign to many people.

Yet according to Ehrenreich and others, the working poor comprise a sizable number of the U.S. working population. These are people employed in low-paying or minimal wage jobs and who, as a result, are simply never able to get a foundation, a footing, so as to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

My immersion experience with the homeless in the Families Moving Forward program helped put a very human face to a group of people largely, if not totally, invisible to many. It also reaffirmed my belief that God speaks to us through our openness to the experiences of others, and that our responses to one another’s stories are capable of manifesting that loving and sacred power spoken about earlier.

I used to think that my volunteering with such programs was being like Jesus helping some unfortunate individuals. I’ve come to realize that more often than not, it’s those I’ve come to “help” who serve as the vision-giving Christ for me.

Their stories are as real, as human and, at times, as uncomfortable as the presence of saliva. Yet these stories have helped opened my eyes. I don’t see stereotypes before me – things that, like walking tress, may look a little like people – I see real people. I see them clearly as my brothers and sisters, bearers of that same sacred love deep within me. And through listening to their stories I see clearly the deep dysfunction of our society – one that keeps so many of our brethren in poverty.

Such listening requires us to go out of our way – to step outside our consumerist-driven society and walk with others, like Jesus, on the dusty roads outside of the hectic towns.

So let us this day and every day, seek out opportunities whereby we walk not only with those accepted and valued by our society, but also with those whom our society renders invisible.

Let us walk, then, with punk rockers and homeless mothers, with anarchist activists and corporate executives.

Let us walk together, each of us part-healer, each of us part-blind.

Let us journey together, trusting that we have what it takes to be for one another both bearers and receivers of sight-giving, transforming powers; to be for one another bearers and receivers of Christ.

We have in place within our community [of Spirit of the Lakes] two structured opportunities for such potentially sacred interaction – Loaves and Fishes and FMF. The invitation to journey is held by each of these initiatives, and there are many already on the road who will welcome our presence. Let us journey together. Amen.

– Michael J. Bayly
October 19, 2003

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What We Can Learn From the Story of the Magi: A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
Praying for George W. Bush
Soul Deep
Somewhere In Between

Monday, February 19, 2007

In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson

“We are not on earth to guard a museum,
but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

- Pope John XXIII

Continuing with the Wild Reed’s series of reflections on spirituality, I offer today the thoughts of former Catholic monk and comparative religious scholar-turned psychotherapist, Toby Johnson, on the spirituality of gay men.


There is an enlightenment that goes with being gay, an understanding of the real meaning and message of religion. Not all gay people avail themselves of this enlightenment. Some are blinded to it by momentary attractions of the flesh and the glamour of a liberated gay life. Some are blinded by the guilt and confusion instilled in them by a homophobic society. And some are blinded by the misinformation perpetuated by institutionalized religion. Yet this spiritual enlightenment is there for us, if only we open our eyes.

Gay enlightenment comes, in part, from seeing the world from the perspective of an outsider. It comes also from bringing a different, less polarized, set of assumptions to the process of observing the world. And it comes, for most of us, from not being parents and thus not being caught up in rearing offspring and holding expectations for their lives. The various forms of what is called “gay spirituality” arise from – and facilitate – this enlightened stance. From this position it is possible to understand what religion is really about in the “big picture.”

Because gay people are conditioned to step outside the assumptions of society to see sexuality in a more expansive way, we are blessed – and sometimes cursed – with this vanguard vision. If we can deal with this vision successfully, we can assist everybody in understanding the real message of religion.

In fact, it is by our issues that religious people are being tested on the real message of their faith: Do they obey the commandment to love their neighbor or do they give in to prejudice and homophobia? Can religious mentality keep up with cultural change?

It is in this regard to our issues that the churches give themselves away. By appealing to homophobia, based in an outmoded view of human nature, instead of helping to cure it for everybody’s good, they show their failure to abide by the basic teachings they proclaim about love and compassion, they exemplify their inability to cope with the modern world, and they demonstrate (to us, at least) that they are not being led by divine guidance.

. . . In the last 100 years a new way of expressing and understanding sexual identity has developed among human beings. We now use words like “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” While people obviously had homosexual sex in the past and formed friendship circles and social cliques with other people like themselves, until recently only a rare few identified thereby or experienced that fact as a source of distinctive and positive personality traits. This is something new. This gives us a new perspective on life.

Gay consciousness is trained from an early age to view life from a perspective of critical distance. Gay people are skilled at seeing from over and above and outside. We can model for the rest of humanity how to understand the real wisdom of religion.

Homosexuality and religion are inextricably intertwined. The primary objection to homosexuality in mainstream America remains religious traditions and Scriptural injunction. Yet many homosexuals naturally embrace the traits of sensitivity and gentleness that religion is intended to teach. Gay men are often saints and moral exemplars. In spite of the contrary examples that can be offered, there is a goodness and virtue that runs through gay men’s lives, and a demonstration of real spirituality in how many of us resolve the problem of making sense of religion in the modern world.

The conflict between church teaching and the reality of gay feelings can create a spiritual crisis that causes homosexuals to reevaluate religion and the meaning of their lives. This spiritual crisis leads some to reject their religious/spiritual sensitivities, often out of indignation at the blindness and stupidity of conventional religion. While this may be an act of spiritual integrity, it can cost these people an important part of life. After all, spirituality can offer a vision of hope and meaning in a world that sometimes appears to be a hopeless miasma of pain and suffering. At its best, spirituality bestows vision and love of life. It widens our perspective. It sensitizes us to beauty and vitality – the very things at which gay men excel.

Many gay men, however, reject neither their religiousness – their will to be good, kind, and honest and their interest in spiritual matters – nor their homosexuality and their enjoyment of the adventure of being gay.

. . . The point of all spirituality is to alter our attitude so we live in
“heaven” now, that is, in a state of loving acceptance of life and active good will for others. In our homosexuality itself is our experience of “God.”

Excerpted from Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness by Toby Johnson (Alyson Books, 2000).

Image:Bundanoon Rose” by Michael J. Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Zainab Salbi
In the Garden of Spirituality: Daniel Helminiak
In the Garden of Spirituality: Rod Cameron
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Chittister
The Catholic High Mass – Beautiful and Inherently Gay?
Keeping the Spark Alive
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men – A Discussion Guide
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Soul Deep

Thursday, February 15, 2007

“Sons of the Church”: A Discussion Guide

In my role as executive director of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I facilitated an insightful discussion last Thursday night with seventeen members of the Basilica of St. Mary’s Boulevards group.

Our conversation focused on the experiences and insights of numerous Catholic gay men that have been collected and compiled in Thomas Stevenson’s book, Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men (Harrington Park Press, 2006).

Following is the Discussion Guide I prepared and used at Boulevards. It’s been edited so that it can be used by any Catholic parish and/or group interested in facilitating discussion around the important issues and questions raised by gay “sons of the Church” and documented by Stevenson. Questions 21 and 22 have been added to the original guide - with the latter arising from last Thursdays discussion with the Boulevards group.

This guide is designed for use over five consecutive sessions:

Session 1: Chapters 1-2 (Question 1-7)
Session 2: Chapter 3 (Question 8-10)
Session 3: Chapter 4 (Questions 11-18)
Session 4: Chapter 5 (Questions 19-22)
Session 5: Chapters 6-7 (Questions 23-26)

As well as being used as the basis for a Book Discussion Group, the guide can also be adapted and used for private prayer and reflection. The upcoming season of Lent provides a good opportunity for such prayerful reflection.

The images that accompany this post are by Raphael Perez, who allows his artwork to be used for free and for any use other than commercial.


A Discussion Guide for
Sons of the Church:
The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men

Thomas Stevenson

(Harrington Park Press, 2006)

Prepared by
Michael J. Bayly
Executive Director
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities

1. In Chapter One, Stevenson identifies what could be called five features of young homosexual lives: alienating silence, fear, sense of being different, denial, and isolation.

Can you relate to these features?

Can you share your own experience of one or more of them in your life?

2. In Chapter Two, many of those interviewed (i.e. the “witnesses”) share memories of their Catholic upbringing. Some of these are “cherished” memories, others are not.

To which of the memories shared can you relate?

What are some of your own memories of your Catholic childhood and youth?

In what ways have they impacted your life as a gay man?

3. On page 21, Stevenson defends the “stern” approach of Catholicism by observing that such an approach “might be right in reminding us that we are sinners, in danger of losing our participation in the personal life God offers us.”

He then poses an important question: If evil can enter into all aspects of the human condition, how can it be experienced in relation to being homosexual?

How might our responses to this question differ from, say, how the Vatican and/or the Courage movement talk about “evil in relation to being homosexual”?

4. A number of “witnesses” speak about how in their youth the experience of homosexuality as being “bad” was something that came more from society than from the Church. Is this something to which you can relate? What were the messages you recall receiving from the Church? What was/is their impact?

5. Witness Leo R. notes on page 26 that, “It was understood that [homosexuality] was not even to be discussed, thought about, talked about. No way possible. It doesn’t happen here.”

What role did silence from the Church and/or your family play in your life as a young gay Catholic man?

Is silence still an issue for you? Can you envision overcoming this silence? How?

6. On page 27, Stevenson writes the following:

Just as children absorb the silent messages of family life, homosexual people in the Church almost certainly have absorbed, and in matters of degree still absorb, the silent message that homosexuality is something so bad it can’t be spoken about. The repercussions of such silence were and often are terribly damaging.

What are some of these “damaging repercussions”?

How as Church can we minimize or prevent their effect on gay people?

7. A question posed on page 29 is, perhaps, one we’ve all asked ourselves: Is the difficulty of bearing homosexuality something inherent to homosexuality, as if one has to bear a disorder and learn to live with it, or, does the difficult burden stem more from communal alienation and rejection?

How have you come to respond to this question within yourself and to others?

8. Chapter Three of Sons of the Church explores the often long and difficult process of accepting and integrating one’s homosexuality, and begins by noting that, “Being yourself often seems like more of a journey than a fact.”

A “theology of journey,” or what Benedictine sister Joan Chittister refers to as a “spirituality of search,” has long been an aspect of the Catholic Church – a faith community that understands itself as a “pilgrim Church.”

Yet what about those Catholic gay men who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to journey in the way that those interviewed by Stevenson have journeyed and, accordingly, arrive at a place where they can accept and integrate their sexuality?

Who are such men in our Catholic community? How can and do we compassionately interact with them when often they are the ones who most vehemently condemn us and our journeys to self-acceptance and wholeness?

9. Were there any journeys described in Chapter Three with which you particularly resonated? Why?

10. What are your thoughts on the following statement by witness Ryan O. on page 47:

Whatever your sexual orientation is about, to me there ought to be a sense of integration. You ought to have a sense that it informs how you think about things and it gives you a certain energy with which you can change the world or make life better for yourself or your family or whatever it gives. And that’s what sexuality is for; it’s supposed to be life giving.

In what ways do you experience your sexuality as “life giving”?

11. In Chapter Four, Stevenson suggests that gay men’s difficulty to love through their sexuality (a difficulty resulting from growing up with their homosexuality unloved), intertwined with a natural sexual desire, may help explain the common experiences of promiscuity among gay men.

What are your thoughts on this?

12. One of the oldest witnesses interviewed says on page 52 that, “Being in relationship wasn’t as easy to do [back] then as it is now. People today are looking for a relationship. I see it with the young people. They pair off more and that’s a good thing.”

Do you discern a difference between various generations of gay men when it comes to the issues of promiscuity and relationships? How do you account for any perceived differences?

13. On page 53, James B. recalls the following counsel of a priest during a homily:

For gay men here, I want to say that in your relationships, if you just go after the sex, you’re never really going to touch the person you’re with. In your relationships you cannot use one another. Sex is part of who you are but it can destroy you or give you empty lives. It can draw you down just as anything else can draw you down.

James is adamant that this is a message gay men “need to hear.”

Why isn’t it one we hear from the vast majority of pulpits?

What would it take to hear this message from, say, the pulpit of your parish?

What’s preventing such an important message from being preached?

How as Catholic gay men, as “sons of the Church,” can we address and rectify this problem?

14. On page 55, Stevenson raises some important questions for gay men and even suggests some distinctions which can be made when discussing promiscuity:

Some of our witnesses point to situations in which anonymous sex, bathhouse sexual encounters, or one-night stands can be positive. Other of our witnesses emphasize the dangers of losing oneself or disrespecting others in promiscuous sex. Underlying this apparent conflict on the surface, however, is perhaps a common ground, and that is the concern for sexuality taking place within a personalized context. Perhaps the concern for a personal, rather than impersonal, attitude toward sexuality is voiced more strongly in our witnesses who lean toward being critical of promiscuous behavior. Nevertheless, can we categorically say that all so-called promiscuous behavior is lacking in personal relating? Can goodness be found in some occasions of casual sex? Can there be one-night stands where bonding and transcendence occur? Is there room for choices, which may be more or less personal, within the context of sexual relating in a bathhouse? No doubt, a greater degree of personal relating can take place more commonly within the context of a growing committed relationship. But that is not to say, categorically, that personal relating can never take place within so-called promiscuous behavior, notwithstanding the very prevalent dangers of depersonalization that so often surround and happen with promiscuous behavior.

Perhaps another way to speak of the distinction being made about promiscuity is to say, in a manner that will appear tautological, that there is a difference between losing oneself and losing oneself. On the one hand, our witnesses are concerned with the ways in which promiscuous behavior can leave one with a sense of emptiness, or destroy one’s self respect or even one’s life. These are very real possibilities of losing oneself. On the other hand, there is the losing of oneself in an ecstasy of giving and receiving persons. Whereas the first way of losing oneself tends to lead, in matters of degree, to nothingness, the second tends to lead, in matters of degrees, to fullness and bliss. (But then, approaching things from yet another angle, it can happen that in taking the path of pursuing empty relating, one realizes one’s need for redemptive love. Alas, all roads can lead to God).

For some, such thoughts are highly controversial. Yet these questions and the deliberations they facilitate arise from human experience – the raw material, if you like, of all theological musings and articulations. Accordingly, they are valid and important questions, though ones that are not being engaged by the leadership of the Catholic Church. Indeed, even the discussion of such questions at the grassroots level of the Church is frowned upon and frequently discouraged.

Why is this the case?

What is it about our Church structure and teaching that discourages and prevents open discussion on such questions?

What needs to be done to welcome and ensure such open dialogue and discussion?

15. Stevenson is adamant that the distinction between personal and impersonal forms of sexual behavior alone does not adequately address the ways gay men have so often been bound to or frozen in more impersonal forms of sexual behavior.

He goes on to outline the following theory:

As a direct consequence of the profound lack of love for their homosexuality – lack of love from families, from society, from religions, from other gay people – the spirits and sexualities of gay people are often broken. As a result of this brokenness, I believe there are often two predominant, related, and calcified responses to sexuality in the lives of gay people. These are self-hated and despair.

As a response to the hatred of homosexuality by society, a homosexual person may, at some deep level, hate himself for being homosexual. [See Mitch S.’s and Greg P.’s reflections on page 57]. . . [A]nother complementary turn is that of despair . The despair might be put into words in the following way: I’m not loved in my sexuality and I’m not going to be loved in my sexuality. Hope for the possibility of love is killed. The connection between despair and promiscuity could then be phrased as follows: Since I’m not loved in my sexuality, and I feel no real expectations that I will be loved, then I’ll just settle for less personal forms of sexual relating. [See Max B.’s and Bob S.’s reflections on pages 57-59].

What are your thoughts on this theory?

Has the fear and despair identified by Stevenson been a part of your life? Do remnants remain?

How did/do you deal with them?

16. Stevenson notes that the witnesses he interviewed affirm the naturalness, goodness, and lovability of their own and others’ homosexuality in at least three different ways: (1) They express compassion for the hardships gay men face and for the suffering gay men endure; (2) They are concerned with affirming and integrating their sexuality into themselves and with moving in the direction of personal relationships; and (3) They experience their sexuality as a gift.

These different ways of affirmation foster healing in the lives of gay men, says Stevenson.

Do your experiences as a Catholic gay man affirm this statement?

Where and how in your life do you experience the three different ways of affirmation and the healing they foster?

What role does the Church play in your experiencing of this affirmation and healing?

Could it do more to embody and express such affirmation and healing? What’s preventing it from doing so?

What role can we play as gay sons of the Church in ensuring that such affirmation and healing is embodied, proclaimed, and shared?

17. On page 63, Stevenson outlines a “crucial choice” for the gay person who suffers from the wound of unlovability, and who accordingly is stuck in more impersonal forms of sexual behavior:

Will he [or won’t he] open himself to receive compassion and affirmation which may be imperfectly given by oneself and one’s friends, partners, family members, therapists, pastoral counselors, and churches; or perfectly and unconditionally given by the ultimate source of love, the Creator of nature and the Healer of our brokenness? What is the alternative? Further despair, self-hatred, or hard-heartedness? Compassion will inevitably lead to more personal forms of relating, including sexual relating, even amid continuing promiscuous behavior.

What are your thoughts on this choice?

Has it been part of your journey as a Catholic gay man?

How and when did you make this choice?

What impact has it had on your life?

18. On page 63, Stevenson relates social justice to promiscuity. Drawing from the insights of his witnesses, he observes that a lot of homosexual people are uneducated or confused with regard to ways of relating sexually aside from promiscuous behavior; that there are negative effects on gay people as a result of existing within a homo-negative culture; that self-hated and despair affects many homosexual people; and that “gay people have been inflicted with a wound of feeling unlovable around their homosexuality.”

The “impersonal forms of sexual relating that result from all these conditions,” insists Stevenson, “are a social justice issue.”

He goes on to envision the following:

Just imagine how different things might be if, for example, Catholic parishes and schools affirmed the goodness and lovability of people in their homosexuality. Not just religion and parochial education, but laws, public schools, and popular culture could all evolve – or perhaps continue to evolve, since in some respects they already have – in ways that would heal the wound of feeling unlovable and open the lives of homosexual people to more personal forms of relating. And given the naturalness, goodness, and lovability of homosexuality, it is the right of gay people to expect justice.

How is the Catholic Church embodying such justice? How does it fail to embody such justice?

What is preventing it from embodying fully the vision of healing and justice put forth by Stevenson and others?

What role can and do we play in such a life-giving, good news-bearing embodiment?

19. Chapter Five of Sons of the Church looks at commitment. It begins by quoting Catholic theologian and ethicist Margaret Farley: “There are some loves whose very power in us moves us to commitment.”

What have been your experiences of such commitment?

What roles do sacrifice, personal responsibility, and prayer play in such commitment?

To what extent does your faith community and/or the wider Church recognize and celebrate such commitment?

20. On page 82, witness Joe shares the response he received from God in relation to his deliberations about whether or not he should commit to Leo, the man he loves, or become a monk. Here’s part of “the Lord’s answer to his prayers”:

Joseph, I love you with every fiber of my being. I love you whether you are gay or straight. . . . [I]n the midst of problems and questions, I exist in you. Through it all, I am here with you. Joseph, you asked me what you were to do with Leo and the idea of being a monk. In both cases I gave you an answer. Remember and relive it. I told you to find me in Leo. . . . And I also told you I will make you holy in the world. Both answers, my son, are still valid. You have what others desire, a relationship that is based on love and affection. Leo loves you and is faithful to you. You also love Leo in spite of your fears and ambiguities. You are not a celibate, Joseph, and I didn’t ordain you to be. Stop worrying about a lifestyle that isn’t yours. Again, I ask you, how many have what you have? Not many. Grow together with Leo. Develop each other’s strengths and forgive each other’s weaknesses. I live in him, Joseph, and I live in you, too. I bless your relationship and I have ordained it to be a vehicle for your salvation, wholeness, and growth.

Have you ever had an experience of hearing deep within yourself, the loving, transforming voice of God?

How was this voice manifested?

What message did it impart?

How has it affirmed, healed, and changed you?

21. On page 79, Michael S. relates the following:

I like it when [my partner and I] pray together, but we don’t do that much. It still feels a little odd to us. But when we’ve done that it’s been really good. And I even heard a story about a couple that would occasionally pray before they had sex. And we did that and it really turns out nice. It’s sex that’s very giving. All of a sudden you’re doing it with a blessing over you or with a higher purpose in life.

What are your thoughts on praying before sex?

Have you ever considered the sex act itself as a form of prayer?

22. Chapter 4 focuses on promiscuity, while Chapter 5 looks at the experiences of gay men in committed relationships. Yet what of those gay men who are neither promiscuous nor in a committed relationship?

Do you consider yourself to be in such a place?

What insights can you share about living truthfully and lovingly in such a place?

23. Chapter 6 of Sons of the Church is concerned with the ways gayness is absolutized. By “absolutization” Stevenson is referring to the human instinct and tendency to take part of life and turn it into the whole. He notes that, “since the part is not the whole, absolutizing involves reductionism. Wholeness is lost in the fixation on something particular, and human beings are reduced to a single aspect of who they are.”

How does the Catholic Church, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the absolutization of gayness?

Do we play a role in this absolutization? How can we counter it?

24. On page 90, Mark M. speaks of moving beyond exclusively gay situations in terms of the Eucharist:

I call that living in the ghetto. Gay ghettos, black ghettos, Hispanic ghettos, feminist ghettos – for whatever reasons – you pull into yourself and disconnect from the larger community and that’s not a Eucharistic event. The Eucharist keeps calling us into connection with others and God.

What are some of the labels you feel are placed upon you as a gay man?

What are some of the names you use to identify yourself? Do you distinguish between labels and names?

One gay Catholic organization, the Rainbow Sash movement, is all about being very upfront about gay identity, to the point of wearing rainbow sashes to communion and, as a result, usually being denied participation in the Eucharistic meal. In light of Mark M.’s and other witnesses’ testimony, as well as your own experiences and insights, how much (if any) of our gay identity do we need to jettison in order to connect with “the larger community”?

25. Beginning on page 95 of Chapter Seven, Stevenson offers concluding thoughts on the “Sons of the Church ” – the “witnesses” – he interviewed for his book:

Our gay Catholic witnesses speak of a love that frees them from the vicious circles of death and destruction for more life-affirming ways of being homosexual. Love is the animating principle for the ways of life. Love is the center of Catholic Christianity – the love of God for us and our love for others. When asked to encapsulate what is essential about their Catholicism, several of our witnesses speak of this love.

Our witnesses speak of how loving, compassionate affirmation of their homosexuality . . . frees them from the destructive denial, hiding, or fighting of their homosexuality. This freeing of themselves as homosexual opens up to new life that is marked by honesty, peacefulness, wholeness, and the experience of the naturalness, goodness, and giftedness of their homosexuality.

Our witnesses speak of how love enters into their sexual relationships. They speak of the tendencies toward destruction in impersonal sexual relationships and of being freed from such destructiveness for a new life of personal relationships marked by joy, sacrifice, commitment, loyalty, prayer, forgiveness, and a sense of giftedness.

Our witnesses speak of being freed from bracketed, isolated gay communities. Our witnesses are freed for an experience of community, Christian community, where there are no divisions of gay versus straight, or gay versus Catholic, or at least where they can meet the challenge of struggling for the healing of such divisions and for a justice that breaks down such divisions.

Do you think most gay Catholic men reflect and embody these particular “Sons of the Church” ’s experiences of freedom? If not, why?

Do such experiences of freedom resonate with you?

26. In the concluding pages of Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men, Stevenson is highly critical of Church teaching that ascribes inherent sinfulness to homosexual actions. He is adamant that such teaching is itself complicit in the destructive behavior of homosexual people; that it is itself a way of death. “What’s bred in bone comes out in flesh,” he reminds us on page 100.

What are your thoughts on this?

Stevenson is equally adamant, however, that “challenging Church teaching . . . does not mean giving up on the center”:

At the center of Catholicism is the love of God for us, this love of God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit for us that in turn transforms us for loving others and returning love to God.

Our witnesses return again and again to this Center, and in their consciences make distinctions about what is not essential in Church teaching, what, according to their lights, is not loving. They do not give up on this Center; rather they challenge from it. To give up on this Center, this Love which is salvific, would itself be destructive.

Stevenson concludes his book by saying that we can be gay and Catholic by “returning again and again to this Love.”

Yet what are the things that can undermine us and work to drive us away from the “Center” identified by Stevenson?

What brings us back?

What sustains us in our “returning again and again”?

Do you see yourself challenging the Church when you stand in “this Center, this Love which is salvific”? How?

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Many Forms of Courage
This “Militant Secularist” Wants to Marry a Man
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: Complex and Nuanced
Somewhere in Between
The Dreaded “Same-Sex Attracted” View of Catholicism
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Soul Deep
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
The Bible and Homosexuality
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Keeping the Spark Alive
The Sexuality of Jesus