January 18, 2015

Navigating Difference

             My colleague Julie Kilmer, theologian and ethicist, and I are in Myanmar for a consultation with Myanmar Institute of Theology.  We are here under the auspices of the Arcus Foundation, which advocates for the concerns of sexual minorities.  We are seeking to learn how churches find resources to offer pastoral care and education to families who have LGBT members.

            This exploration not only concerns churches and persons in Myanmar, but those who immigrate to the US, where the hyper-sexualized culture becomes a great challenge.  How can Central assist in cultural assimilation, especially in navigating this radical difference?  Of course, American churches are still learning how to practice hospitality in this area, and we need such attentiveness, also.
At dinner last evening, one of the professors put it bluntly:
“We don’t talk about that here.”  By “that,” he was referring to the presence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who are known to be part of every ethnicity, every culture.  It is understandable that such conversation be more sub rosa in a land where homosexuality is still illegal.

The church cannot be silent as countries and governments wrestle with finding ways to make space for those who do not fit the rather binary categories we prefer. Yesterday the news reported that neighboring country Thailand is preparing for a constitutional amendment that will recognize a “third gender,” referring to those persons who seek sexual reassignment because of the lack of fit between one’s sense of identity and one’s body.  Of course, US news is buzzing about the Supreme Court taking on the rights of same-sex couples.

Many faithful Christians are engaging this issue with new insight gleaned from careful biblical study, contemporary social science, medical/biological perspectives, and ethnographic studies.  We are learning that simple etiological arguments that call for condemnation of all sexual “irregularities” cannot withstand critical engagement.  Besides, there is the human reality of violence, oppression, and shunning for those who articulate their difference.   

In this coming week, we will be doing fieldwork as we explore with professors, students, Baptist leaders, and NGO’s who advocate for sexual minorities, the shifting ground here.  Our task is not to impose “solutions” for this culture, shaped by Buddhist patriarchal asceticism, is far different from the social landscape at home.

Yet, common questions emerge about justice, welcome, protection under the law, and human dignity.  We will conduct our study and conversation with respect and empathy as we learn more about the state of the issue here.  Imposing a North American interpretive framework would be disrespectful; ignoring a pastoral issue would be irresponsible.  I trust we will navigate the theological and cultural waters with care and discernment.  I also trust that we can move the discussion forward, both here and at home.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

January 12, 2015

Hungering for the Sacramental

            Our week at the Abbey “filled the hungry with good things.” We return refreshed, with quieter hearts and a spirit of peace.  We also return with new resolve to bring balance to our lives outside the cloister.  The combination of prayer, work, and holy leisure, as prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict, is all about human flourishing.

People attend the Benedictine Spirituality course for a lot of reasons.  It is a relatively painless way to earn three hours; it provides opportunity for retreat; it offers spiritual community; and, it introduces the learner to a time-honored tradition for conversion of all ways of life.  I am always grateful for this extended time with fellow learners in prayer, around the tables, with opportunity to engage hospitable monks who offer transparent windows into their lives and faithful practice.

Over the years of teaching this class at Conception Abbey, I have noticed another process unfolding in the lives of those who make this pilgrimage.  There is a palpable hunger for the sacramental.  Learners from Central are not eager to convert to Roman Catholicism; however, they long for more significance in Eucharist, words of blessing and absolution, and a deeper sense of sacred space and time.
We recognize that the Protestant Reformation gave attention to key issues such as the role of faith, the normative significance of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. Yet, we perceive that the rending of the church caused loss on both sides.  Protestants lost much of the interlocking sacramental system; Catholics lost the possibility of a more inclusive way of thinking about leadership, vocation, and assurance of salvation by faith alone.

When asked to reflect on the experience at the Abbey in one word, one learner simply said “thirstier.”  Another said “sacramental.”  They were speaking about their yearning to appropriate weightier, more sacramentally grounded “means of grace” in their own tradition.

The Epistle reading for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, includes this statement: “ . . . whoever is joined to Christ becomes one spirit with Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:17).  This suggests to me that the goal of a more sacramental focus is for union with Christ in an organic way.  One no longer thinks of his or her identity separate from Christ—or from Christ’s Body, held together in the power of the Spirit.
Once again, we were beckoned to new insights by another branch of the church.  By walking back through our tributary toward the river of origin, we identified our thirst and recognized more about the Source.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.