Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Living Tree

I can remember as a little boy in Australia, way back in the early 1970s, entertaining members of my family with, if I do say so myself, a pretty good rendition of Shirley Bassey’s “Big Spender.”

It’s true! I can recall it happening on one occasion in the lounge room of my grandmother’s little house, located in the poor (but always interesting) part of town – that part of Gunnedah built on the flood plains of the Namoi River.

I must have recently seen Shirley Bassey in concert on the telly and was obviously quite taken by the way she swung her hips and buttocks to the saucy Boom! Boom!’s of “Big Spender”’s brass section:

Wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun?
How’s about a few laughs [Boom!], laughs [Boom!], laughs?
I could show you a [Boom! Boom!] good time!
Let me show you a [Boom! Boom!] good time!

I had no idea, of course, what the words were about, but for days afterwards I enjoyed singing and dancing my own version of the song.*

Although I long ago gave up this little routine, I still think it’s cool that Shirley Bassey – now Dame Shirley Bassey – is still on the scene making her trademark over-the-top music. (Who can forget “This Is My Life,” her cover of the Beatles’ “Something,” and, of course, her James Bond movie themes, “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and “Moonraker”?)

Her latest is song is “The Living Tree,” which, coincidently, was a metaphor I recently employed to describe the Catholic Church!

Anyway, here it is! . . . Enjoy!

Let me dance.
Let me choose my life.
Let me climb the living tree . . .

* Singing and dancing, that is, until Aunty Fay (my Mum’s half-sister) took me to see relatives from her father’s side of the family and asked me do my little Shirley Bassey routine for them. I remember it was a great dark house, the inhabitants of which were old and feeble in ways I had never seen before. They sat motionless and silent in large 1940s-style lounge chairs. It could have been a scene from a
David Lynch film. I froze, and despite all my aunt’s pleadings, remained so for the duration of our visit. I guess that was the end of my stage career!

Interestingly, years later my Mum did a Shirley Bassey “Big Spender” routine for a Rotary Club function! I can recall my brothers and I being invited into my parents’ bedroom to watch Mum rehearse and to offer feedback. I was older by then, maybe ten or eleven, and that wonderful exuberance that I think we all have at a younger age in terms of just being who we are, had already began its retreat into some interior closet.

So I just sat on the bed and watched, not daring to remind anyone of my past connection with the song. It was kinda sad, really. Yet in one way or another, that self-censoring and retreat into “the closet” has, at some point, been the experience of the vast majority of gay people. Thankfully, though, things have and continue to change for gay people.

As for me, I’d now have no hesitation singing and dancing along with “Big Spender,” if the opportunity ever arose and the mood struck me! Only if, though. After all, as Shirley sings on “Big Spender,” I don’t “pop my cork for every man I see!”

Recommended Off-site Link:

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Rhythm Divine
One of These Boys is Not Like the Others
A Lesson from Play School

Friday, March 30, 2007


That’s the only word I can think of to describe the the plea bargain agreement revealed today in relation to David Hicks – the Australian detainee held for five years without trial at Guantánamo Bay.

Earlier this week, Hicks entered a guilty plea to the charge of providing material support for terrorism. He had originally been accused by the U.S. government of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to engage in acts of terrorism, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. These charges were void, however, when his original trial before a U.S. military commission was canceled in 2006 following the 2004 Supreme Court Hamdi v. Rumsfeld ruling invalidating the constitutionality of the commission process. A second trial was nevertheless set.

A stretch of David Hicks in the “courtroom” at Guantánamo Bay.
According to his attorneys, Hicks said that he had grown his hair long so as to
pull it over his eyes at night to keep out the light and allow him to sleep.

Richard Philips has observed that, “Hicks is the first prisoner illegally incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay to be brought before a military commission. The vague charge, the commission itself, and Hicks’s guilty plea are all legal travesties, which not only violate the Geneva Conventions but centuries-old basic legal principles.”

According to his father Terry, David Hicks plead guilty in order to get out of the Guantánamo Bay detention center and its terrible conditions, and return home to Australia.

Australian National Party MP Barnaby Joyce notes: “One of the many reasons why the law disapproves of prolonged incarceration without charge or trial is because of the intolerable pressure it places on the accused to plead guilty just to escape detention. . . The only thing that is guilty here is the judicial process under which he was being tried.”

Joyce is one of the few Australian politicians courageous enough to speak out against the moral and legal outrage that is Guantánamo Bay. Politicians may be largely silent, but the Australian people are not. As Richard Philips notes, Joyce is “expressing the sentiments of broad layers of Australians who are appalled at Hicks’s treatment.”

Indeed, in the eyes of most Australians, concerns over Hick’s guilt or innocence have been eclipsed by the fact that he has languished for five years without trial in the hellhole of Guantánamo Bay – often for long periods of solitary confinement.

Now on top of this outrage are the various components of the plea bargain agreement – an agreement that initially was to see Hicks serve a maximum of seven years in an Australia prison. (In just the last few hours it’s been reported that a section of the plea agreement that had been kept secret from the panel of military officers that recommended the seven year sentence, caps the sentence at nine months.)

According to Mark Coultan of the Sydney Morning Herald, Hicks has to “drop any claims of mistreatment by the US government since he was captured in Afghanistan and taken to Guantánamo Bay.” (Hicks had previously alleged that he was beaten, sodomized, and subjected to forced injections while being held by US forces.)

“The plea bargain,” writes Coultan, also includes “a ban on [Hicks] speaking to the media for one year, and agreement that if he made any money from selling his story the money would go to the Australian Government.”

Can you believe this crap? It just goes to show how bad conditions must be at Guantánamo Bay for Hicks to not only plead guilty, but to agree to such outrageous conditions.

I’m not the only one to think this way: “David Hicks would agree to anything to get out of Guantánamo after being trapped there for more than five years,” says Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The government is attempting to silence criticism and keep the facts of their torture and abuse of detainees from the public.”

Noting that Hicks has already outlined his torture and abuse in an affidavit he dictated to his military attorney in 2004, Warren adds, “You can't put torture back in a bottle.”

As an Australian citizen I am appalled at my government’s support of such a shameful plea bargain agreement. I’m also deeply ashamed of my government’s five years of support of the Bush administration’s violation of the legal rights of David Hicks at Guantánamo Bay – a place where hundreds are denied their fundamental right to go to court on a writ of Habeas Corpus, and where, as Richard Philips notes, “fear and intimidation, sensory deprivation and other torture techniques are routine.”

Image: Janet Hamlin/Associated Press.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Guantánamo: Black Hole or Vital Tool?
Justice at Guantánamo? The Paradox of David Hicks
Habeas Corpus, R.I.P. (1215-2006)
Human Rights Watch: “Stop the Guantánamo Circus”
Center for Constitutional Rights
Fair Go for David

See also the previous Wild Reed post: Praying for George W. Bush

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann

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

Pope John XXIII

Uta Ranke-Heinemann was the first woman professor of Catholic theology in Germany, teaching in the theology department of the University of Essen. In 1987, the Vatican declared her ineligible to teach theology, after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact.*

Hans Küng, who had similarly been silenced by the Vatican, Ranke-Heinemann transferred to a history of religion professorship. She continues to teach at the University of Essen.

The following is excerpted from the introduction to her 1992 book, Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith, which internationally renowned historian of religion Karen Armstrong notes, “skillfully disentangles the web of contradictions and improbabilities that surround the Christian story to reveal the essential underlying truth.”

Putting Away Childish Things, says Armstrong, is “a timely reminder that faith is often confused with belief and an acceptance of certain religious opinions. [It] demonstrates the futility of assuming that a religious message conveys factual information and directs the reader to its deeper purpose.”


Human beings want to believe. People are therefore the ideal soil for the seed of religion. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re dealing with God himself, because people can trust God not to hoodwink them. But we humans deal not so much with God as with his authorized deputies. Since they assume us that it’s all for our eternal happiness and salvation, we let them tell us many tales. Believers accept without question what they’re taught to believe and do, because authority comes forward bearing a mandate from God, doubt seems to be a sin.

Christians have to deal with God’s truth only indirectly, because as the catechism says: “The Catholic Church teaches us what God has revealed.” Or, as a Catholic hymn puts it: “O God, I believe with all my heart/That what your Church teaches is true,/For both the written and unwritten part/Came to her directly from you.” Thus Christians only get the truth secondhand, if at all. But truth that has passed through alien hands is a censored truth, and the God whom we meet at the end of a series of ecclesiastical middlemen is a censored God. The truth, or whatever remains of it, has degenerated – thanks to theologically dense Christian pastors – into a mass of misunderstood and incomprehensible teachings; in other words, into pseudo-faith and superstition.

The Church calls on us to believe and not to think. Thus, throughout their lives, believers practice the mental gymnastics of saying amen to everything they’re told. In a religion that blesses believers and distrusts doubters, the questioners go unblessed and arouse suspicion in more than a few believers. Yet questioning is a Christian virtue, though seldom practiced by Christians.

Still, it may be that people are no longer content with what others insist that they believe. People seem no longer to listen and to give credit to fairy tales, because their hearts and minds find it too painful.

But what are they to turn to? The Church isn’t interested in understanding or enlightenment: Every variety of enlightenment strikes it as suspicious, if not worthy of damnation. The Church speaks only about the hurt done to its religious feelings. It closely monitors such hurt and is often running to the courts. Unfortunately, it pays too little attention to the hurt done to our religious intelligence, which has no legal protection. From the law’s point of view, such intelligence doesn’t even exist. Hence, people who long for the truth – and who mean by that more than the truths served up to them by the “servants of the servants of God” – are thrown back on their own devices.

[Putting Away Childish Things is] designed to help this questing intelligence. Some people will say this harms the faith, but understanding can’t harm faith; actually, it’s faith that has all too often harmed the understanding. . . . When people who long for a more immediate, authentic, and large-scale truth simply walk away from verbose and empty sermonizing, it sometimes happens that a new truth, beautiful and gentle, dawns in the darkness. This is the truth of God’s compassion, which has been obscured by the Church’s many fairy tales and which is nonetheless the only truth – and the only hope.

We encounter this truth in the person of Jesus. We know neither when and where he was born, nor when he died: He is a man without a biography. We don’t know how long his public activity as a preacher lasted or where exactly it took place. Strictly speaking, we don’t know a whole lot more than that he was born, that there were people who followed him as his disciples, and that he was executed on the cross – the Roman version of the gallows – and thus came to a wretched end.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus. But if we trace his steps, we sense that he sought – and found – God; that he wanted to reveal this God as being close to every one of us; and that he wanted to make everyone an intimate both of God and of his or her neighbor. Anyone who cares to know also realizes that Jesus’ voice is as much a living voice as ever; his truth a living truth; and his God a living God, near to us all.

From Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don't Have to Believe to Have a Living Faith by Uta Ranke-Heinemann (English translation: Harper Collins, New York, 1994).

* The key points raised by Uta Ranke-Heinemann in relation to the virgin birth:

1. In many pre-Christian cultures stories of virgin births were frequently employed as myths. These myths pointed to the birth of a divine savior-figure from a virgin mother. Though the myth of virgin birth was especially prevalent in the Hellenistic (Greek) world, it was wholly alien to the Judaic world – the culture within which Jesus was born and raised.

2. It is erroneous of Christians to insist that Jesus’ divinity is dependent upon the factual occurrence of the virgin birth. Jesus is divine by his very nature (an ontological fact), not by the circumstances of his birth (a biological fact). Jesus could have had a human father and still have been divine.

3. By asserting that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth, the later writers of the New Testament (Matthew and Luke) could better support their view to potential converts within the Greek world that Jesus was a divine redeemer. Earlier New Testament writers, such as Paul and Mark, were not writing to Hellenistic audiences and so did not feel compelled to support the divinity of Jesus with a virgin birth narrative.

4. The virgin birth myths of the ancient world were all constructed with a limited and faulty understanding of human reproduction – especially with regards to the female role in reproduction. Women were viewed as the empty vessel in which the sacred seed (i.e., human life) was deposited by the male. The female’s role in creating this life was not understood or acknowledged.

Image 1: Michael Bayly
Image 2: Stuart Mentiply

Recommended Off-site Links:
A 2005 interview with Uta Ranke-Heinemann.
“My Travels with Uta” by John D. Spalding.
A summary of Ranke-Heinemann’s best-selling book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.

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
In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman

The Real Gay Agenda

Writer Mary Shaw has written an interesting article for the Online Journal entitled “The Real Gay Agenda.”

Here’s a brief excerpt:

. . .[E]quality is really all [gay people] want. That’s really all there is to the so-called “gay agenda.” Simple equality. No special privileges, just the same rights as everyone else.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage say that it would undermine the institution of marriage. But isn’t heterosexual infidelity already doing that?

I fail to see how legalizing same-sex marriage would have any effect on heterosexual marriages. As James Carville once said, “I was against gay marriage until I found out I didn’t have to have one.” No, anyone who feels that his own heterosexual marriage would be threatened if gays could marry obviously has some very deep issues that can’t be fixed through legislation.

This country was founded on the principle that all people – not just the heterosexual ones – are created equal. It’s time to make that principle a reality. It’s time for the homophobes of America to stop worrying about what consenting adults are doing in the privacy of their own homes. After all, time and time again we’ve seen that those who want to control what goes on in other people’s bedrooms seem to have the most to hide in their own. (Can you say “Ted Haggard”?)

To read Mary Shaw’s article “The Real Gay Agenda” in its entirety, click here.

Image 1: Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons
Image 2: In describing this particular image, notes: “February 12, 2004: San Francisco made history by granting the first ever same-sex marriage license to a prominent lesbian couple as part of a challenge to a ban on gay marriage. Longtime activists Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, who have been a couple for over 51 years, said their vows at city hall after Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered officials to wed gay couples and issue marriage licenses in an act of civil disobedience against a state law that bars same-sex marriages. Lyon and Martin stood facing each other and beamed when a city official pronounced them not husband and wife but ‘spouses for life’ . . . The high court dismayed Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon on August 12 by nullifying same-sex marriages. ‘Del is 83-years-old and I am 79,’ Lyon said. ‘After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.’” For more information about the gay marriages in San Francisco in 2004, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link: Spouses for Life: A Wedding Album

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Good News from Minnesota
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Making Sure All Families Matter
Gay Adoption: A Catholic Lawyer’s Perspective
The Gay Old Party Comes Out
What the Republican Leadership and the Catholic Hierarchy Have in Common

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Something We Dare Call Hope . . .

. . . planted like a warm little seed deep within.

I delivered the following sermon to the community of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ on Sunday, November 9, 2003.

With its strong imagery of seeds, its message of trustful anticipation and hope, and its promise of new life in the midst of difficult times, this sermon also serves as an appropriate reflection for the current season of

The accompanying artwork is by Justin McGonigle.


Contemporary Reading
“The Seed Shop” by Muriel Stuart

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee seek here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century's streams,
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

Scriptural Reading
Luke 12: 22-32

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Think of the ravens. They do not sow or reap; they have no storehouses and no barns; yet God feeds them. . . Think how the wildflowers grow; they never have to spin or weave; yet, I assure you, not even Solomon in all his royal robes was clothed like one of them.

Can any of you, however much you worry, add a single cubit to your span of life? If a very small thing is beyond your powers, why worry about the rest? . . . Your Creator well knows what you need. . . . There is no need to be afraid.

By Michael J. Bayly

I’m sure we’ve all had those types of mornings. I experienced one just this past week. You know, one of those mornings when you wake up and just don’t want to get out of bed. And so I lay there – alone in my quiet room feeling faded and forlorn.

I could have sought to escape such a feeling. I could have put on some music or forced myself to rush unconsciously into the day, using my hectic and intense dedication to tasks at hand as armor against these feelings inside. But I thought, no. I’ll stay with these feelings – as uncomfortably forlorn as they are. I’ll engage them, listen to them – these stirrings from deep within.

I began to reflect upon what it was that was making me feel so despondent, so lifeless. I soon realized that it was a number of different things. I therefore had to name them and, in doing so, perhaps take the first step in freeing myself from this oppressive weight bearing down upon me.

Yet no sooner had a decided upon this course of action than a strange image flashed through my mind – an image that seemed to mock me. I saw again that particular scene from the film Mrs. Dalloway when Vanessa Redgrave, playing the part of Virginia Woolf’s famous character, emerges from her London home and excitedly declares to the day: “What a lark! What a plunge!”

This morning, I thought to myself, was anything but a lark. And the only plunge it seemed I had taken was into feelings of despondency.

Yet I chose to stay with the words of Mrs. Dalloway and to reflect upon why so often I do, in fact, resonate with them. For you see, I do try to view each new day as one filled with the sacred gift of life, filled with possibility and opportunity. But I also realized that recently it’s never long before my sunny interior is clouded by doubts. What is it I really want and need? Am I even capable of recognizing such things and taking pro-active steps in securing them?

Complicating such questions for me is the whole messy dilemma of what it is I actually want to do with my life in terms of my gifts and talents, and where it is that I want to do this conscious, pro-active living. Do I want to do it here or in Australia? I’ve long realized that on multiple levels I walk in many worlds – a fact which this particular morning, far from being a “lark,” was a crushing burden. Yes, I walk in many worlds, but I also seem to walk through them. It seems I have a home in none of them.

So was that it? Was this why I was feeling so glum? Partly. Yet there was more.

The news of the ongoing violence in Iraq, I realized, was also contributing to my depressed state of mind. And for the first time I realized just how helpless and angry I was about this situation. I thought back to this time last year. The whole world seemed to be rising and saying in unison, “No!” to war. It was an unprecedented history-making time, and I felt inspired and had played an active part in what seemed like a global, non-violent uprising against empire.

And yet what did it achieve? The Bush Administration, aided and abetted by the government of my own country, went ahead with its arrogant and violent imperial adventure. It’s a tragedy that continues to this day, mired not only in the violence in Iraq, but in a vague yet debilitating sense of official lies and cover-ups here in the United States.

Yes, I was beginning to unravel and identify the various components of this heavy, oppressive mood that gripped me. But there was still more.

I also came to realize that the recent events here at Spirit of the Lakes and all the pain, hurt, and anger that these events continue to generate were also contributing to my forlorn state of mind and heart.

Over the last few months as perspectives have been shared and feelings vented, I had felt increasingly helpless – as if the bottom had fallen out of one of my worlds, one I had thought was stable and secure. In a frenzy of activity I had taken it upon myself to spruce-up our space here, to transform it. And somewhere in the back of my mind was the hope that such transformation would manifest itself in our community life. Yet this particular morning as I lay in bed, such transformation – such reconciliation and healing – seemed far distant.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I came to some profound moment of enlightenment that morning, which, in turn, propelled me out of bed like a resurrected god. But no, I stumbled out into the semi-darkness, my feet reluctantly stepping upon the cold concrete floor of my basement abode.

What keeps us going?

What gets us out of bed on days like these?

Is it an ingrained sense of duty; the cold reality that certain things just must be done?

Or is it something deeper? A faint, flickering glow within the very depths of our soul – something that perhaps we dare to call hope. Something of us yet also beyond us – planted like a warm little seed deep within.

I got through that day and I continue to get through these days of uncertainty, violence, and brokenness because I trust the light of that inner reality – present not just in me but in each one of us.

It’s the same light, the same spark, that our brother Jesus tells us sustains the birds of the air and the wildflowers of the field. Ultimately, it holds us all in community, in communion – that is, common union. Because of this I’ve come to realize that we can’t get through days such as these by ourselves. We need one another. We need community.

I also think it’s helpful, when experiencing difficult times such as these, to think of ourselves – both individually and communally – as being like seeds. We may look and feel crumbled, forlorn, and lifeless, yet we contain within us the sacred gift of potentiality, of creativity; the sacred gift of life. We can and will rise again – from all manner of disappointment and mishap.

Dwelling this past week on thoughts such as these, my spirit has been lifted. I feel it like a tender shoot emerging from the dark depths. And I feel that others – here in this room – are supporting and nourishing this trustful growth, just as my presence and action encourages theirs.

Yet what does this type of growth, this openness to God present within human community, look like in relation to those often paralyzing realities I spoke about earlier?

Well, on the personal level, I’ve come to a point were I’m letting go of worrying about finding the right path for myself. The “right” path is wherever I’m at in the here and now. I know a part of me wants clear-cut answers, yet maybe it’s not about discovering answers but simply forging life – consciously and compassionately – from where, and with whom, we stand.

And what does this openness to God present in human community look like in relation to global events? How can any one of us hope to address such powerful and devastating realities such as war, injustice, and empire? Again, I feel we can only start from where we’re at. And believe me, that is not an insignificant place for any one of us. In our own families and neighborhoods there are countless opportunities to incarnate the justice-making and loving presence of God that we so long to see in the world.

Similarly, there are numerous ways of confronting empire. My choices as a consumer, my presence at ongoing peace vigils and outside of local weapon-making corporations are all powerful ways by which I can channel my energy away from those life-denying systems that support empire and towards life-giving alternatives that support justice, peace, and environmental sustainability.

And what about Spirit of the Lakes? What does openness to God present in human community look like here amidst feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment? The events we’ve gone through these last few months have forced some to retreat, to distance themselves from the community. And perhaps, initially, this was necessary, appropriate – a mechanism for self-protection.

But for myself and many others, the time is coming to return – to recommit to that which drew us here in the first place. And what was it that drew us? Surely not any one individual or personality type, but a community – a community comprised of all sorts of individuals and personalities. For myself and many others – maybe even you – the time is coming, or perhaps is already here, when we remind ourselves of the radical, foundational truth that to embrace the good news of liberation we must embrace one another through authentic community.

It’s a community that, like a flowering garden, must be open to continual re-creation – even if this re-creation has been prompted by difficult events. Regardless, we need to recognize that the power behind such re-creation and renewal is the loving, transforming power of God alive not just within us, but among us.

Entering into each new day while being open to such re-creation and renewal might not always be a “lark,” but for me to call myself a follower of Jesus, it must truly be a “plunge.”

It’s a plunge into consciousness and into compassionate engagement with all with whom I come into contact.

It’s a plunge into the messy world of human community – including this community of Spirit of the Lakes.

It’s a plunge into the vast arena of varied and, at times, conflicting personality types and opinions.

Yet it’s a plunge that is the only way I know by which I can experience the presence and love of God.

So let us recommit ourselves to trusting that we here at Spirit of the Lakes have within us and among us what it takes to be an authentic community. And let us embody this trust in our words and actions.

Let us take advantage of the various events being organized by our Congregational Care Team. Let us take advantage of the community-building possibilities of Loaves and Fishes and Families Moving Forward.

And let us trust that through these and other endeavors our loving Creator-God will provide us with all we need so as to grow and flourish as a community – a community called Spirit of the Lakes.

– Michael J. Bayly
November 9, 2003

Image 1: Seed 1 by Justin McGonigle.
Image 2: Seed 2 by Justin McGonigle.

To visit Justin's online art gallery, click here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What Sarah Jane Did Next

Fans of the popular British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who may recall the previous Wild Reed post in which I discussed the return of Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctor’s most popular traveling companion of the original or “classic” Doctor Who series (1963-1989). I noted that Sarah Jane, played by Elisabeth Sladen, made an appearance in “School Reunion” – an early episode in the second season of the revived or “new” Doctor Who (2005-present).

Though invited to rejoin the Doctor and his current traveling companion, Rose Tyler, Sarah Jane gracefully declined, preferring to move on with her life here on Earth. Yet “School Reunion” wasn’t the last we’d see of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith. Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, Sladen reprised her role as Sarah Jane in the pilot episode of her own television series for the CBBC, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Production on a full series of ten 30-minute episodes is due to begin next month.

Adventure, Wonder, and Integrity

Geared to a slightly younger audience than either the new Doctor Who or it’s first spin-off, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures is nevertheless, judging from the pilot, a well written, acted, and produced television show. And for young (and not-so-young) viewers, it not only offers escapist entertainment, but some important insights into the living of a life of adventure, wonder, and integrity.

Of course, this really isn’t that surprising given that one of the show’s creators, Russell T. Davies, is head writer for the “new” Doctor Who, and as this TV show’s executive producer, Julie Gardner reminds us, “[Doctor Who] is not a series for the world weary, jaded, or coldhearted. . . . There’s wit and love and pain and adventure. . . The universe is dangerous and your moral choices, your actions, define you.”

“If we all had a little more of the Doctor in us,” says Gardner, “our world would be a better, braver place.”

Writes Alex Newman of the pilot episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures: “This supposed children’s program . . . tackles loss, loneliness, fear and despair - all ingredients of ‘adult’ drama - but in a way that allows the characters to grow and learn something about themselves and their boundaries - and other people. It does it without hitting the younger end of the audience over the head with it, and at the same time almost avoids falling into the trap of producing tacky syrup for the older end of the spectrum to become stuck in.”

Somewhat eccentric

Since her reunion with the Doctor, and their working together to unmask and defeat the
Krillitanes (documented in the “School Reunion” episode of the “new” Doctor Who series), Sarah Jane has clearly found renewed energy in pursuing her interest in paranormal and extraterrestrial goings-on. As a result, her neighbors consider her somewhat eccentric. Yet as Sarah Jane defiantly declares: “I don’t care what people think of me. Never have. I just want to find the truth.”

And equipped with an extraterrestrial super computer known as
Mr. Smith and various gadgets and devices gained from her past adventures with the Doctor (including a wrist watch that scans for alien life and a robotic dog, K-9 Mark 4), Sarah Jane Smith is more than capable of getting to the bottom of mysterious happenings. Her plucky deposition also helps.

Yet there’s an introspective and wistful side to Sarah Jane as well – one that allows for the expressing of heartfelt insights into the human condition.

“When I was your age,” she tells her young neighbor Maria, “I used to think, ‘Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want, I’ll be sorted.’ But you never really know what you want – you never feel grown-up, not really. You never sort it all out.”

Of her time with the Doctor, she remarks: “I met this man. A very special man called the Doctor. And years ago, we traveled together [in time and space]. Then it came to an end. And suddenly, I was back to a normal life – electric bills, burst pipes, bus tickets, and rain.”

Without doubt, there’s a certain sadness about Sarah Jane Smith. She’s not one to wallow in it, however, but rather names it and accepts it. Such a conscious and proactive response serves to energize her as she moves on with her life. In a number of areas of my own life I can resonate with this aspect of the character of Sarah Jane Smith. I also think that Elisabeth Sladen does a wonderful and beautiful job in bringing to life a fully human individual – one with very real doubts and regrets, hopes and aspirations.

Knowing Where to Look

In “School Reunion” there was a tinge of bitterness to Sarah Jane’s reminiscing of her time with the Doctor and its abrupt end. Yet with a long-overdue experience of closure, afforded by the concluding events of “School Reunion,” Sarah Jane has clearly come to peace with her past – and her present and future: “I saw amazing things, out there in space; but there’s strangeness to be found wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too. You just need to know where to look,” she says.

And Sarah Jane certainly knows where to look for strangeness and adventure. In the series pilot episode, “Invasion of the Bane,” her inquisitive nature leads her to the factory that produces Bubble Shock!, a highly addictive soft drink that’s taking Britain by storm. As others have observed, this particular scenario actually bears some similarity to the Futurama episode “Fry and the Slurm Factory”, where an addictive soft drink is discovered to have a terrible alien secret. The earlier B-movie,The Stuff had also used a similar idea.

Bubble Shock!, Sarah Jane discovers, is being made by an alien entity known as the Bane, who are able to disguise themselves as humans by use of “image translator” technology. And leading these counterfeit humans is the sinister Mrs. Wormwood, CEO of Bubble Shock! As Sarah Jane observes, Mrs. Wormwood’s name echoes the star Wormwood from the Book of Revelations, which, after plunging to earth, poisons all sources of freshwater.

The Bane wish to consume the people and resources of Earth, and their plan to do so takes advantage of modern humanity’s tendency to mindlessly consume. Sarah Jane, however, refuses to even sample Bubble Shock! “I’d rather die,” she tells Mrs. Wormwood, who is soon more than willing to oblige.

What follows is a classic adventure tale complete with tentacled aliens, resourceful kids, the camaraderie of new found friends, the ultimate defeat of a larger-than-life villain with plans for world domination, and perhaps most refreshingly, a heroine who is of “a certain age” (Sladen turned 60 on February 1) yet who is more than a match for all manner of challenges and dangers.

For instance, when one of the Bane aliens, in its real and hideous form, breaks into Sarah Jane’s house and heads up the stairs intent on killing Sarah Jane and her young friends, it mockingly refers to her as an “old woman,” to which Sarah Jane retorts, “Hey, less of the ‘old’,” before resolutely repelling it with a toxic spray of alien origin.

Shocked by the appearance of the Bane, Sarah Jane’s young friends are surprised to hear her insist that the government “knows all about aliens.”

She goes on to note that: “There are secret organizations dedicated to finding them,” a reference, no doubt, to the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce or UNIT (from the classic Doctor Who series) and the Torchwood Institute (from the “new” Doctor Who).

“But they tend to go in all guns blazing,” concludes Sarah Jane. “I just think there’s a better way of doing it.”

No Longer Alone

At the beginning of “Invasion of the Bane,” Sarah Jane is a reclusive and not very friendly individual. Yet by the conclusion of the program and the defeat of the Bane, she’s formed a bond with two of her young neighbors and adopted “the archetype” human child the Bane had created.

“I thought, ‘I can handle life on my own’,” Sarah Jane tells Maria and her newly adopted son Luke. “But after today – I don’t want to!”

Yes, we’re all in this together and we need one another. No man (or woman) is an island. It’s yet another life-saving truth uncovered and articulated by Sarah Jane, and one which we all need reminding of again and again.

And may there be many more such truths to come – along with, of course, plenty of adventures involving scary aliens, a sonic screwdriver disguised as lipstick, and our ever resourceful and funkily-attired heroine, Sarah Jane Smith!

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Blast from the Past: The Return of Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith
She’s So Lovely
Impossible! . . . It Can’t Be!
She’s Back!

Recommended Off-site Link:


Postscript, January 2008: The first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures was a great success in the U.K. Plans are underway for a second! Here’s hoping both will be shown in the U.S. some time soon.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Joy: The Most Infallible Sign of God’s Presence

Have you ever seen a picture
of Jesus laughing?
Mmm, do you think he had
a beautiful smile,
a smile that healed?

Kate Bush
“Why Should I Love You?”

James Martin, SJ, has an insightful and, well, humorous piece in the April 2 issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly. Entitled “The Most Infallible Sign,” Martin’s article deftly explores the “distinguished heritage” of joy in the Christian spiritual tradition.

Following are some excerpts, accompanied by various artistic depictions of Jesus smiling and/or laughing – which, when you think about it, are pretty rare.


The Most Infallible Sign
Excerpts from an article by
James Martin, SJ

America: The National Catholic Weekly
April 2, 2007

Joy has a distinguished heritage in the Christian spiritual tradition. It is easy for most Christians to imagine someone like St. Francis of Assisi smiling. More recently, Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta were often captured by photographers smiling and even laughing. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Yet lightheartedness is still an unwelcome guest in some church circles. Many Catholics have met church officials for whom being a religious leader seems to mean being deadly serious. Catholic spiritual writing often focuses on finding God through suffering but far less often on finding God through joy. Some Masses belie the term “celebration.” Are joy, humor and laughter considered inappropriate for serious Catholics? If so, why?

. . . While the Gospels show Jesus as clever, especially in his telling of the parables, few places in the New Testament present him as humorous. Some scholars suggest that this reflects the predominant Jewish culture, which prized seriousness about God, a topic not to be taken lightly. Yet if the Evangelists were intent on painting an appealing portrait of Jesus, why omit his sense of humor?

There is no way of knowing how much of Jesus’ humor was expunged from or left out of the Gospels. But Professor Levine noted that Jesus laughs frequently in some noncanonical Gospels. The church fathers, moreover, intent on combating heresy, would likely not have seen the genre of humor as appropriate. . .

In his book Man at Play, published in 1972, Hugo Rahner, S.J., carefully traced the notion of playfulness throughout Greek, Roman and early Christian thought. Rahner noted that while Aristotle encouraged a healthy balance between humor and seriousness, some early Christian writers favored a far more serious approach to life, as they were concerned with facing the dangers of the world and the evils of Satan. St. Paul warned in the Letter to the Ephesians to avoid “smartness in talk.” St. Clement of Alexandria inveighed against “humorous and unbecoming words.” And St. Ambrose said, “Joking should be avoided even in small talk.” St. Augustine, on the other hand, recommended occasional joking, and St. Thomas Aquinas recommended play, opining that there is a virtue in playfulness, since it leads to relaxation. . .

Just a few years earlier, Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian, tackled the topic in his book The Humor of Christ (1964). His analysis of the paucity of humor in the New Testament took a different tack. First, contemporary Christians are overly familiar with the stories and may overlook their inherent humor. He recounted how his four-year-old son heard the Gospel image of the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye and the log in your own and laughed uproariously.

Trueblood also noted the emphasis the Gospels place on the Passion, with the crucifixion narratives almost overwhelming the Resurrection. Finally, writes Trueblood, there may be a failure of imagination about Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that Jesus wept does not mean he never laughed. He must have laughed, suggests Trueblood, as do most people who tell clever and amusing tales.

Another tantalizing explanation for the dearth of humor and playfulness in the church is advanced by Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Ehrenreich posits that leaders, particularly in European cultures, were frightened by enthusiasm and collective joy, which they saw as primitive or hedonistic. When the lower classes assembled to enjoy themselves and strengthen their camaraderie and friendship, they often made fun of the ruling class as a way of asserting their own authority and threatening prevailing social structures.

Ehrenreich suggests that the church fathers may have set aside the parts of Jesus’ message that embraced what she calls a “sweet and spontaneous form of socialism” for something more serious. Spontaneity threatens the status quo. Because of the subversive nature of humor, many in authority deemed it unacceptable.

Some residues of humor may still be traceable in the way the Evangelists wrote and edited the Gospels. But as Professor Levine notes, we may be so familiar with these stories that we miss the humor. She points to the story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12), who sits in the window ledge of a room where St. Paul is still talking near midnight. Eutychus dozes, falls out the window, drops to the ground and is presumed dead, until Paul examines him, discovers he is alive and continues talking until dawn.

Many Christian saints and blesseds have celebrated humor and laughter, which run like common threads through their lives, disproving the stereotype of the dour saint. In his biography God’s Fool, the French novelist Julien Green speaks of the joy of St. Francis of Assisi that “spilled over into the hearts of thousands of men and women.”

Stories about the humor of saints reach back to the Roman martyrs. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a gridiron, is said to have called out to his executioners: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side!” Some saints were known specifically for their sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, called “The Humorous Saint,” hung at his door a little sign: The House of Christian Mirth. “Christian joy is a gift from God flowing from a good conscience,” Neri said.

St. Teresa of Ávila specifically warned her sisters against a deadly serious religiosity. “A sad nun is a bad nun,” she said. “I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits. . . . What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.” A more contemporary example is Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose most famous sally came when a journalist innocently asked, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” John replied, “About half of them.”

To read James Martin’s “The Most Infallible Sign” in its entirety, click here.

Note: To see the full text, you must subscribe to America either in the print or web-only version.

Image 1:
Image 2: Portrait of Jesus.
Image 3: Apostleship of Prayer Art Gallery.
Image 4: Artist unknown.
Image 5: St Agnes Catholic Church.
Image 6: Luther Seminary – Museum and Fine Arts Collections.

Recommended Off-site Link: “On Ash Wednesday, Religion and Joy” by James Martin, SJ.

Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity

The St. Paul Pioneer Press published an interesting letter this past Monday by Phyllis Plum. Here’s what she had to say:

Those angry about Archbishop Harry Flynn’s nonsupport of New Ways Ministry speakers are not Catholics in practice and philosophy. Michael Bayly of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (which is also not a Catholic organization), claims being universal means accepting “diverse opinions.” Absolutes don’t work that way.

The universality of the Catholic Church means there is one way and truth involved; everyone is on the same page, or they aren’t members. That’s how membership works. I am tired of noisy groups pushing their view into tradition and absolute truth, seeking to change the rules and deny authority. A straight line can’t also be crooked.

So, what are we to make of our sister Phyllis’ charge that neither I, nor CPCSM, are Catholic in “practice and philosophy”?

What of her view of the Church as some type of exclusive club with clear and unchangeable rules?

A reaction against a certain type of authority

Well, first, it needs to be acknowledged that Ms. Plum’s reaction to people like me and groups like CPCSM, reflects a type of Catholic theology that, according to English Jesuit Philip Endean, is “shaped by a Counter-Reformation reaction against Protestantism, in particular against the possibility that a person’s private experience of God could serve as a source of religious authority overriding the Church’s official leaders.” (1) *

Endean’s reflections on such a theology can be found in his introduction to the book Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings. Rahner, of course, is one of Catholicism’s great twentieth-century theologians. He was also a key figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, as such, helped move the Church beyond the type of theology reflected in the writings of Ms. Plum, and thus the ghetto of neo-scholastic thinking.

Rahner was instrumental in developing and articulating an alternative theology to such a narrow and abstruse way of thinking, a theology that sought to “integrate the whole of Christian theology around one simple message: that God is a God of self-gift, a self-gift that can, however dimly and incompletely, be experienced.” (2)

A theology based on this understanding of God’s active presence in human life, notes Endean, is one that is open to “a permanent process of growth, interchange, and transformation.” (3)

It’s clear from Ms. Plum’s letter, and from recent comments left at the Wild Reed in response to this post, that such an ongoing process of “growth, interchange, and transformation” (especially as it relates to complex human realities such as gender and sexuality) is very frightening for some Catholics. And in order to deny and avoid such a process, many resort to “equat[ing] ecclesial fidelity with passive toadyism” – which for Endean, is “a temptation of modern Roman Catholics.” (4)

More than we know

As comfortable as it may be to wrap ourselves in all sorts of “absolutes” with regards to gender and sexuality, Endean, in reflecting on the work of Karl Rahner, nevertheless reminds us of the authentically Catholic perspective which recognizes that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.” (5)

Basically, to quote one of my favorite lines from the movie Ben-Hur: “The world is more than we know.”

And whereas I, and others, find hope in such a description of reality, there are those whose response is one of distrust and fear. As a result, some poor souls cling so desperately to aspects of the known that they prop them up as idols, from whose shadow they dare not venture (or allow others to venture) out into the world.

Yet as Endean reminds us, “Christian fidelity is not a matter simply of preserving a heritage unsullied, but rather of courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” (6)

His words recall those of Pope John XXIII: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Endean goes on to say that, “The proclamation of the gospel is permanently interactive: no one is untouched by the grace of God, and the proclaimed message will be heard aright only if it somehow interacts – in ways that might be surprising, creative, or unprecedented – with the self-gift of God already present. It follows, too, that Christianity is permanently growing and in process.” (7)

“What Christianity is committed to,” concludes Endean, “is not the claim that its traditions possess the whole truth, incontrovertibly, but rather the claim that its traditions possess one resource among others – admittedly a privileged and indispensable one – for continuing to discover God’s truth.” (8)

Understanding “the Church”

In light of this very Catholic way of understanding the ongoing process of discerning and discovering God’s truth, I, as a Catholic gay man, respectfully disagree with Phyllis Plum’s contention that the “one way and truth” of the Catholic faith excludes those who dissent from the supposed “rules” of our Catholic tradition.

An understanding of the Catholic Church as some kind of exclusive club with an inflexible set of rules fails to reflect basic Catholic theological tenets articulated by folks like Karl Rahner, as well as the example of community modeled by Jesus.

I think a better and more inviting way of understanding the Church than as an exclusive country club, is that of a shared pilgrimage of a diverse group of people united in their commitment to embody God’s loving and transforming presence through their words, actions, and relationships of compassion and justice.

Perhaps the commitment to embody such values should take precedence over “rules.” Jesus certainly wasn’t averse to breaking the religious rules of his day when responding to the demands of compassion and justice.

Those “noisy groups” that Plum says are seeking to change “the rules” of the Church, tend to be comprised of those who are willing to embark on those very Catholic journeys of “courageous engagement with what is new, with what seems strange.” They also tend to be people who have been denied any voice in developing the “rules” that folks like Phyllis Plum are so intent on lifting up as absolute and thus unchangeable.

But let’s get real. The Church’s understanding, and thus teaching (or “rules”) on human sexuality, has been primarily shaped by heterosexual men within a patriarchal culture. If we want teaching that truly reflects a universal - i.e., catholic - perspective, then a more diverse and inclusive range of voices and experiences needs to be taken into account – including the voices and experiences of women and gay people.

The role of the laity

Also, once we acknowledge the significant role that human experience plays in the process of continually discovering God's truth about human life and relationships, the role of the laity – all members of the laity – comes into much clearer focus.

Australian theologian Paul Collins, for instance, reminds us that, “Consulting the laity in the formulation of doctrine is part of Catholicism’s theological tradition. Also, the whole Church’s acceptance of papal and episcopal teaching is an integral part of testing the veracity of that teaching. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth.” (9)

Collins finds support for such claims in the writings of the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), “who said unequivocally that the laity has to be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives so intimately.” (10)

Wrote Newman: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and . . . their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.” (11)

Good news to share

Based on Ms. Plum’s view, I am presuming that she also believes that most Catholic heterosexual married couples are not actually Catholic, as, in reality, the vast majority of them, acting out of an informed conscience, do not consent to “the rules” when it comes to contraception. Yet we rarely hear the likes of Plum publicly denouncing dissent of this kind, perhaps because it’s easier for Catholic married couples to quietly dissent in this way. Most gay people, however, feel that they cannot simply quietly dissent, as such a secretive way of living puts us in the psychologically damaging and life-denying space of the closet.

Besides, we are compelled to lift our voices as we have good news to share: the loving and transforming presence of God is not limited to the impoverished teachings and rules of the Vatican. We have experienced this sacred presence in our lives and relationships.

In short, we’ve come to realize the ancient spiritual truth (and thus Catholic truth) that not only can our beliefs shape our reality, but our reality can and should shape our beliefs. That’s the kind of living, growing Catholic Church that most Catholics want to live in and contribute to.

Such an understanding of Church could be imagined as a great sheltering tree. Phyllis Plum is adamant that the Church can only be straight, never “crooked.” Yet just as a tree is comprised of different parts, both straight and curved, firm and supple, the Church too is not as rigid and uniform as some may wish it to be. Like a healthy tree, the Church needs both anchoring roots and growing branches that are reaching ever outwards. That such a reality leads to tension is inevitable. But such tension doesn’t have to be divisive or destructive. It can be creative and life-giving.

Accordingly, I believe that despite our differences, Phyllis Plum and I both have a place and role to play in the Catholic Church. And for me, that truth says much about the beauty and power of the Catholic faith.

1. Endean, P. (Ed.), Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4. Ibid., p. 26.
5. Ibid., p. 27.
6-8. Ibid., p. 28.
9-10. Collins, P., Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (Sydney: ABC Books, 2004), p. 12.
11. Newman, J.H., On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, (1859), ed. John Coulson (London: Collins, 1961), p. 63.

* My sense is that Ms. Plum would have us relinquish the authority of our personal consciences in favor of the authority of the Magisterium. Yet if we did this, what then do we do with statements like the following:

“Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.”

Such a statement explicitly differentiates between one’s “own conscience” and “church authority”. Yet is this statement simply the ramblings of a dissident theologian, a “militant secularist” in a Catholic disguise?

Actually, no, it’s not. They are, in fact, the words of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and he is explaining the authentic Catholic understanding of the primacy of conscience. The pope’s explanation is excerpted from a commentary on “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”) published in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Vorgrimler, Herbert (Ed.), Burns and Oats, 1969, p. 134.)

Photography: Michael J. Bayly

Recommended Off-Site Links:

“It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Our Views on Human Sexuality” ( a response by Michael J. Bayly to a previous letter by Phyllis Plum), Pioneer Press, August 12, 2003.
Br. David Steindl-Rast on “A Revolution of Authority”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Many Forms of Courage
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
The Question of an “Informed” Catholic Conscience
Keeping the Spark Alive: An Interview with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
The Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
The Onward Call