Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In the Eye of the Storm . . .

. . . a Tree of Living Flame

Recently I've been spending late afternoons at the office of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, distributing our "Another Catholic Voting No" yard signs. Believe it or not, our office is housed in a Baptist Church in South Minneapolis. It's a very progressive Baptist Church, however, as the photo at right attests.

I've lost count of the number of people who have come by for a yard sign in the past couple of months. I do know that all have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to take home and share in their neighborhood and, in some cases, their out-state town or city, the message of our signs. It's a message that's very simple: It proclaims that a self-identified Catholic, drawing upon key aspects of their Catholic faith, has chosen to vote their conscience in a particular way on the 'marriage amendment.' And their conscience – informed, in part, by the presence of God discerned and celebrated in the lives and relationships of their gay and lesbian loved ones – tells them to vote 'no.'

Above: A September 19, 2012 Associated Press photo by Jim Mone.
The caption reads: "In this photo, Michael Bayly, right, director of Catholics
for Marriage Equality MN, hands a yard sign to Ted Fisher, of Bloomington, Minn.,
as Sue Kmetz, left, of Minneapolis, prepares to leave with her sign supporting
Catholics who oppose the Minnesota marriage amendment which will be decided
in the November general election. The group said they have handed out more than
a thousand yard signs, buttons and stickers that read,
'Another Catholic Voting No.'"

Difficult times

In the midst of the 'marriage amendment battle,' as the media like to call it, it can be difficult being a self-identified Catholic. This is not because Catholics are predominately in favor of denying civil marriage rights to gays and lesbians. Far from it. Of all the Christian denominations, Catholics are actually the most supportive of civil rights for LGBT people – including civil marriage rights. (In her October 8 National Catholic Reporter column, Jamie L. Manson examines one reason for this support)

No, it's not the Catholic people's stance on marriage equality that makes it difficult for many to identify as Catholic these days in Minnesota. Rather, it's the anti-marriage equality rhetoric and activism of those who comprise the church's clerical leadership, or caste, as I prefer to call it. I see absolutely nothing of the compassion, justice-making, or radical inclusivity of Jesus in this rhetoric and activism. Quite the opposite. The words and actions of Archbishop Nienstedt and various spokespeople of the Minnesota Catholic Conference are insensitive, mean-spirited, and exclusionary. The image of LGBT people, relationships, and families that such words and actions convey is rooted in demeaning caricatures, erroneous distortions, and deliberate fear-mongering. Such things are causing unnecessary divisiveness and pain in families, society, and the church.

The hurtful rhetoric and divisive tactics championed by those opposed to marriage equality seem to be increasing daily – as is the determination of many to resist and challenge such damaging words and actions. As I noted previously, I don't like thinking of all of this as a "fight" or "battle," though I accept that this is exactly how it can feel to many people – myself included at times. Yet I don't want to fight. I don't want my actions dictated by feelings of anger, hurt, and grief. And I don't want to see anyone – not even Archbishop Nienstedt – as my enemy.

Beacons of hope, encouragement and invitation

I've come to think of the pro-'marriage amendment' efforts as comprising a great storm of negativity – one that's wreaking havoc on the emotional and spiritual well-being of many. In the midst of this storm, I see groups like Catholics for Marriage Equality MN as pockets of reason, compassion, and calm; as places where those battered by the stinging winds of this storm can find refuge and the strength to breath deeply and say quietly yet firmly, "No!" No to the forces of havoc and harm; no to the forces that seek to limit and exclude.

On most weekday afternoons, the C4ME-MN office serves as such a place of refuge. And I like to think that all the love, peace and courage we foster and share within our walls gets to be carried out and shared each and every time someone takes home with them one of our "Another Catholic Voting No" yard signs. I don't actually see these signs as political statements. After all, they don't actually tell anyone how to vote. Rather, I see them as little beacons of hope, encouragement, and invitation, shining in ever-increasing numbers throughout the metro area and beyond.

A living flame

On the grounds of the church in which we have our office, there is a little tree. Currently, its leaves are a beautiful glowing-red color. Often when there's a lull in the distributing of yard signs, I go out and just sit with the beauty of this tree. In doing so, I experience God's loving and transforming presence.

It's become for me a symbol of hope, this tree of living flame. It reminds me that the church is a living body; that it too can and does change. And I'm reminded that I'm also not only capable of growth and change, but that I'm called daily to undertake such a sacred journey. That's what I've come to understand life and the spiritual path as being all about: journey, struggle, transformation.

This beautiful tree is rapidly losing its leaves – an inevitable change at this time of year. Watching this transformation makes me mindful of changes in my own life, and the need to be more intentional in setting aside time for prayer and reflection so as to most lovingly and authentically respond to these changes. I've come to realize that all this 'marriage equality'-work, as important as it is, has kept me too busy, too outwardly-focused. Perhaps this was necessary, given the specifics of the situation. I don't know. What I do know, however, is that I can't wait for this whole amendment issue to be done with. It really has taken a lot out of me this past year-and-a-half. As a result, I'm feeling the need for inner replenishment and balance in my life.

People often ask me how I think the 'marriage amendment' vote will turn out. I honestly don't know. Of course, I hope and pray that both it and the "voter photo ID amendment' will be defeated. I'm well aware that living in liberal South Minneapolis is akin to living in a bubble. When one sees daily the hundreds of official "Vote No" signs that dot the metro area, one can be lulled into a false sense of security about the outcome of the vote. It's a very different story in the outer suburbs, of course; not to mention rural Minnesota. Yet I remain hopeful, in large part because of the observations and insights shared in Rose Arce and Carol Costell's recent CNN story on how this year's Election Day may reveal a significant shift on the issue of same-sex marriage. Following is an excerpt from this particular article.

"The biggest difference going into this election as opposed to the last election is that a majority of Americans now support the freedom to marry, we have a president of the United States that supports the freedom to marry, we have six states and the District of Columbia where gay people can share in the freedom to marry," says Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, a group supporting the right of gays to marry.

A CNN/ORC poll in June found that a majority of Americans support marriage rights for gays and lesbians, reflecting a dramatic shift in public opinion over the past two decades.

The number of Americans who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, meanwhile, has jumped from 49% in 2010 to 60% today, the first time in CNN polling that a majority of Americans have said that. In the 1990s, most Americans said they did not know anyone close to them who was gay.

Drew Tagliabue, the executive director of the New York City chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says ties with gay people have prompted non-gays to support gay rights causes in increasing numbers.

"When you come at something and you know someone who is gay, it takes the fear out of the issue and makes it clear that it's just a simple matter of equality," he says.

The November votes come as courts are moving to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, one of the biggest obstacles to gay rights supporters. The divisive act, passed in 1996, bars federal recognition of marriages between people of the same sex and says states cannot be forced to recognize them. On Thursday, a federal appeals court in New York became the nation's second to strike down the law, saying that it violates the Constitution's equal protection clause. A federal appeals court in Boston made a similar ruling in May. The appellate court decisions mean the next step is likely to be a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A time of prayer, discernment, and nurturance

In two weeks we'll know the result. And then? Well, obviously, much will depend on the outcome of the vote. For me personally, regardless of the result, I'll be taking a short break and visiting friends in Chicago. Then it will be back to the Twin Cities for the winter and my part-time job with a Minneapolis-based meals-on-wheels program. For CPCSM, the group I work with and which initiated Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, it will be a time of envisioning future directions and plans. My role with the organization is one of a number of important questions about which I intend to prayerfully discern in the months ahead. Indeed, I'm thinking that the approaching winter will be for me a season of discernment. What is it I am called to do with my life? How am I called to use my gifts and talents? At the moment the answers to these questions are a mystery to me. I just know that I feel as though I'm at a crossroads, and that I want to take this seriously and respond prayerfully and mindfully.

One book I've been reading that I've found helpful is Phillip Gowins' Practical Sufism: A Guide to the Spiritual Path. Take for instance the following by Gowins on prayer and commitment.

Merely engaging with God has a profound effect. When you ask the divine a question, the very asking changes you. What I mean is that if you ask God what to do . . . or if you simply ask God to create the conditions within your being that will allow the love stream to flow, you will be different. . . . Commitment can be seen as allowing beauty to enter our lives; as allowing the desire for intimate spiritual expression to come forward and become itself, as the acknowledgement of our capacity for evoking the divine being within ourselves. . . . [T]rue commitment [is] nurturing within yourself the kernel of truth and purity that is what you already are.

Praying, discerning, nurturing . . . all things that I hope to do in the weeks and months ahead. To help facilitate such steps on the journey I've promised myself to spend time with those who nurture my spirit – good friends of both the two-legged and four-legged kind! Connection with such friends is important because working this past year-and-a-half on the issue of marriage equality within the context of the incredibly divisive 'marriage amendment,' has meant having to deal with opponents whose words and actions have been quite toxic. I feel I need to cleanse myself of all this toxicity.

Another step I've taken is to finally set up my little prayer altar in what's now my not-so-new home in Minneapolis. Over the past week, my housemate Tim and I have been making the spare bedroom into a meditation room. Our prayer styles are very different. As a result of his interest in and exploration of Buddhism, Tim prefers to focus on a blank wall, while I have my colorful little altar with all kinds of special objects – candles, rocks, icons, and feathers. We completed preparing the room last night, and I spent time this morning, the morning of my 47th birthday, sitting before my prayer altar in meditation and prayer.

I recently found a prayer that I wrote about ten years ago. As you'll see, given all that I've shared in this post, this prayer is very appropriate. Obviously, it must have been appropriate to my life when I wrote it a decade ago. In fact, I think I know myself well enough to say that this prayer will always be appropriate for me! I close this post by sharing this prayer.

Great Spirit,

I pray for balance.
I pray for wisdom and strength
to avoid self-absorption as the result of spending
too much time focusing inwardly.
I pray for the wisdom and strength
to avoid burn-out as the result of expending
too much of myself outwardly.

Most importantly, I pray for the strength
to cultivate a relationship with you;
to spend quiet time open to your presence within and beyond me;
to create quiet space for your Spirit of discernment
to rise and surface in my consciousness.

I pray for balance,
Great Spirit.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Into the Fray
"There Must Be Balance . . ."
Quote of the Day – November 16, 2011
Seeking Balance
The Soul of a Dancer
In the Garden of Spirituality – Hazrat Inayat Khan
Sufism: A Call to Awaken
Clarity, Hope, and Courage
As the Last Walls Dissolve, Everything is Possible
The Living Tree

See also my previous birthday posts:
Journeying Into the Truth . . . Valiantly, of Course
No Matter What

Images: Michael Bayly and Jim Mone.


Mark N Denver said...

Michael -

I am always eager to read your new blogs as they appear. This one was great. Keep up the good work for Marriage Equality and the rights of all people for a kind and just society. By the way Happy Birthday - mine was Monday - although I have a few years on you (I am 64 now).

Peace and Happiness.
Mark N Denver

colkoch said...

For some reason Michael a bunch of us are at a cross roads and at something of a loss as to where their future lies in terms of their spirituality or religious expression. I personally have felt I've been holding open a space for the last two years or so, rather than fighting a battle. It's a space others have been just as intent to close.

I too can't wait for the next two weeks to be over, and I think some of us may be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes.

Nice altar by the way.

Paula said...

Thanks for sharing, Michael. I loved the trees.