Tag Archives: Pope Benedict

A Christian Voice In A Changing Culture

Betrayal

For the last month, I have been sickened by reports of ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s long history of sexual abusing male teens and adults; more deadening still is his denial of the allegations (how so when a diocese settled a couple of these cases years earlier?). Most crucifying are reports that some leaders around him knew of his atrocities and turned a blind eye.

Each Christian bears the shame of this. Those aware of the devastating impact of sexual and spiritual abuse bear more. How could a religious system betray her most vulnerable over and over again? The Church’s structure lends itself to cohesion (for which I am grateful) and cover-up (for which we must become stubbornly intolerant).

Scripture guides me here. As the McCarrick allegations unfolded, I completed a Bible study on the Gospel of St. Mark with my children, using a commentary written by Dr. Mary Healy, a Catholic biblical scholar whom I esteem as one of the greatest gifts to the Church today. St. Mark is the leanest of the Gospels and thus fails to soften much of anything. His account of the events leading up to the crucifixion broke me; I shuddered as demonized men abused Jesus rapid fire, relentlessly. He suffered betrayal on every side, as if dark forces had captivated all men and made them violently stupid. On the cross, Jesus’ only words conveyed forsakenness (‘Where are You, Father?’), ending in a death cry.

Thank God for the cross, the Father’s inner logic that boomerangs wickedness into divine power and wisdom! Yet in St. Mark, even Christ Resurrected is hidden from witnesses who are either too dull or too afraid to believe the Risen Jesus at all. Mary Magdalene ‘gets’ Him but her report to the disciples falls on deaf ears and blind eyes. And this from the Gospel I most associate with spiritual power: St. Mark’s blazing witness of the Word confirmed by signs and wonders.

St. Mark reveals the cross as God’s strength, glory just waiting to shatter the husk of clueless men. If God truly works through human impotence, then we the Church have given Him a lot to work with—the ex-cardinal whose dazzling gifts obscured a predatory double life, dutiful men who doubted their guts and settled on hiding gangrene rather than amputating it. To quote Pope Benedict: ‘In the Church, Jesus entrusts Himself to those who betray Him again and again.’

Eloquent and true. Yet humanly-speaking, how are we to trust the Church now? We must grieve for persons abused by clerics who cannot help but gag at pics of McCarrick gazing effusively at Pope Francis. And what about the innocent clerics who fight for chastity and who urge us to integrate our own, priests now complicit in the eyes of the public who see ‘cover up’ in every Roman vestment? We must cry out for the abused who need justice, and for clergy who should not be maligned because of a cowardly few. And for the unbelieving world who needs to know that the Church is not a secret, self-protective refuge for perverse men who enjoy the theater of religion. Rather, she is a beautiful Mother, served by amazing Fathers.

Power in impotence—the cross, the gist of the Gospel, St. Mark’s especially. And that is what we are beholding as Pope Francis, with the help of friends, acts decisively and strongly to no longer tolerate clerical abuse. He is wielding the surgical knife, as evinced by the resignation of 34 Chilean bishops last month who participated in an extensive cover-up of ongoing abuse, and the conviction of an Australian Archbishop on similar grounds. Most resoundingly, Pope Francis stripped McCarrick of his cardinal status and removed him from public ministry. That is huge, a first, and needs to become standard practice for shepherds who eat sheep or look the other way while others do.

A trustworthy Church? Yes, when she verifies the truth of abuse, disciplines abusers, while making every effort to heal the abused and ensure the sexual integrity of her leaders. Strength at work in weakness: our faith is founded on nothing less. We’ve miles to go. Still, when lived in her members, the cross on which God was betrayed overcomes the sting and stink of this most intimate human betrayal.

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Home for the Holidays: Life in the Body

‘When I talk about her, I cannot stop!’ St. Augustine

‘How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—a place near Your altar,
O Lord God Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
they are ever praising You.’ (PS 84: 1-4)

I have a confession to make: I love the church of Jesus Christ! Through all my wanderings, in a variety of gatherings, I have discovered the antidote to alienation, provocation to my passivity, the quieting of a restless heart. I have found Jesus in His Body. There is nowhere else I would rather be than among the faithful, focused on the Lover of our souls.

Let’s start at the church’s beginning: Christmas. Here we are, yet again. Inevitably, the holidays stir up questions of home and family. As one ages, both change: families-of-origin scatter then ones own members leave and cleave. Today, Annette and I face the fun challenge my parents did decades ago: who is where and when? Often the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a series of little gatherings designed to accommodate the changing face and place of family.

Families change; the nature of ‘home’ evolves as we do. Christmas provokes a range of emotion, from the ache of a deceased loved one to anger and regret at estranged ones to delight in new members; holidays unfurl a backdrop of memories against which we assess this year’s leanness and riches.

Head and Body
How blessed we are as believers to belong to a family that may well include but that always transcends our ‘house church’: we belong to a holy communion of saints who draw their life from Jesus Himself! Through birth and death, the taking up and letting go of family members, we are united in an actual yet deeply mystical Body of which Christ Jesus is our head.

How blessed are we who know our home away from home! Those who claim the church as ‘home’ forsake the false notion that personal devotion to Jesus is enough. How can the Head, which is Christ, exist without His Body? We know Him through them, ‘the saints who are in the land, the glorious ones in whom is all [our] delight.’ (PS 16: 3)

The Body and Wholeness
I discovered my need for the Body early on. My life was disintegrated. I had come out of a community founded on the deception that same-gender members could create whole units. The truth: if two members share the same set of ‘gifts’, then trying to exchange those gifts is going to frustrate the gift-giving. Nature and good theology concur.  A community of one gender cannot create new life; that requires ‘otherness’.

The foundation for my wholeness lay not in dating women but rather in the dethroning of self that occurred in the ‘otherness’ of Christ’s Body. By His grace, I submitted to a God I could not see with a group of people which a proud man like me would not have chosen to gather with. Yippee!

Pope Benedict describes far better than I the healing power of subordination to Christ through His Body. ‘The Church of Jesus Christ is never my Church but always His Church. Indeed the essence of conversion lies precisely in the fact that I cease to pursue a party of my own that safeguards my interests and conforms to my tastes but that I put myself in His hands, a member of His Body, the Church.’ (Called to Communion)

Merciful Body
The Vineyard Christian Fellowship was the ground on which Annette and I fell in love. Within that holy family, we as a couple started our own. What a great foundation. The Vineyard possessed the special grace of Mercy: the mercy Jesus gave us for our sins that resulted in worship—simple love songs—that we sang to Jesus in gratitude for His kindness to us.

Jesus’ mercy also expressed itself in healing. We as His Body believed that our Head wanted to heal people if we would pray. He was merciful. We trusted Him and prayed for people. Mercy healed us. Such healing was always accompanied by musical worship. Both flowed from Mercy, the foundation of the Vineyard and our own spirituality.

Praying the Truth
We moved east to Kansas City to join with IHOP (International House of Prayer). We came to give our gift of healing to the sexually broken there but what we received was much greater. IHOP is founded on intercessory prayer and biblical prophecy: God’s word spoken in season to rouse His people to do His will. IHOP prepared us for the battle ahead; it granted us the discipline of corporate intercession and the Word that awakens sleepy Christians, a combination through which we combat the deadly blend of perversion and unbelief in today’s culture.

IHOP and the Vineyard: two powerful expressions of Christ’s Body that ‘married’ in us Mercy and Truth. In our transition out of IHOP, we served at a local church, New Day, which afforded us a loving pastor and a solid context for Living Waters.

Body Aches
Yet an ache for home remained in us. Our hearts were fixed on Christ our Head, we worked hard in His Body, yet we grew weary of the ever changing dimensions of local church life. Perhaps that is the gift of Protestant churches (we can change!), as well as its liability (the ever fracturing Body). Regardless, our hearts longed for a home in the Body where we could lay our heads on His.

Annette and I diverged here; she made her home in a turned-on Anglican Church where our son Nick became a pastor. It is a privilege to accompany my family to worship there and to witness the knitting in of both Nick and Annette.

I proceeded to explore the Roman Catholic Church and eventually became a confirmed Catholic. That has been hard for Annette and me, and at times we struggle against the divide. He who holds all things together holds us together too. (Col. 1: 17)

My new parish home has deepened my understanding of the Body as ‘home.’ I could write for days on the marvel of her mysteries, particularly the Eucharist. Through daily Mass, I partake heartily of the Word and of the wounded God whose brokenness is always my healing.

Yet such mystical union could become self-serving, an essentially vertical act. My hunger for God is only satisfied if we the Body are broken for one another, known in our weaknesses, submitting to each other out of reverence for Him (Eph. 5: 21) and thus being healed. (James 5:16)

Home is where we heal; I need honest exchange of weakness for holy strength where I worship. How grateful I am for truthful priests who facilitate confession. Yet we need more than that. To overcome life-dominating sins and wounds, we need each other. It is not optimal (though understandable) to separate one’s spiritual home from the healing we can access from one another in this one Body.

The healing authority of the laity is a truth that is alien to most Catholics. And my becoming Catholic has alienated me from many of my evangelical comrades. So I take heart that this year Pope Benedict initiated a Year of Faith. Its purpose is to raise up afresh the foundations of our faith for all to see; I trust this shall include a renewed mobilization of lay persons like me to manifest Jesus, one to another, in the one Body.

My prayer of faith: ‘Jesus, make each church a healing home for the sexually broken!’ Toward that end, I draw strength and courage from the Christmas mysteries.

Mary: A Type of Church
Who better exemplifies faithful surrender than Mary, Jesus’ mother? All she could offer to God was herself. She had no other pedigree: only faith. We are called to be like her.  After all, the church itself is an essentially feminine vessel composed of men and women yielded to God for the purpose of bearing fruit through Him.

When I was Protestant, I always loved Mary and instinctively knew that we neglected her honor. She is an exemplary disciple for two reasons: her radical obedience in saying yes to bearing Christ, and her unparalleled communion with Jesus from conception to His tomb. There lies her greatness: intimate communion combined with humble deference towards her Son.

Just like the church itself. The beauty of the Body is in vain if we do not lift up Jesus so He can draw all to Himself. Mary leads the way here, and thus becomes a type of the church, ‘its exemplary realization’ (CCC 967) and ‘the mirror in which the whole church is reflected.’ (deLubac)

To be clear, Christ is her Head too. How silly ones are who confuse her greatness with deity. The Catholic Church shoots straight here: ‘Mary’s function in no way obscures or diminishes the authority of Christ but rather shows its power.’ (CCC 970) Under His headship, Mary bears witness to the whole church as to what we can be as yielded vessels to the Father: bearers of Christ, who like her commit to manifesting Him always.

Blessed is she among women, and blessed are we who concur. Through her witness, I take heart in my efforts to become a home for others in this One body.

‘Salient’ Joseph
Mary’s greatness was realized by the faithful love of husband Joseph. You could also say that Jesus’ birth depended upon Joseph’s faithfulness. I define him as salient, which means equal parts authority and nurture, strength and benevolence. How else can you describe this man who employed his power to shield his bride and holy child from destruction?

Consider the forces against the young family. Joseph had not fathered Mary’s child, leaving both him and Mary in the darkness of a social shame inconceivable in our day. Joseph did all within his power to protect her from such cruelties. He denied his own shame (not yet knowing the child’s parentage) for her honor.

On the strength of a mere dream, some prophesies, and a star, he mobilized all he had to guide mother into granting Christ secure entry into this world. Then quietly, carpenter Joseph mentored Jesus in the work of his hands.

We know of Joseph’s salience mainly by inference: how his son wept over the lost and purged corrupt temples, lingered with children yet forged resolutely toward Jerusalem. We witness Joseph’s salience most clearly in the beauty of his wife and the virtue of his son.

Tender and powerful, nearly hidden from view yet leaving a legacy that saved the world: not a bad role model for any Christian seeking to build up the Body. I look to Joseph with renewed intention this Christmas. How well do I use my power to empower the weak and grant them place in this one Body?

Manifesting Christ in this One Body
God entrusted Mary and Joseph to manifest Christ. Through His mercy, we have now become His Body. My challenge and yours is how our presence in that Body best manifests His headship. Are we making the Body a better place—purer, truer, more merciful through our membership? Are we helping make Christ’s house a home for others?

We each must answer that question with concrete, Spirit-led decisions. I offered my gift–the way I manifest Jesus—to my parish. At first, the pastor resisted a group for the sexually broken. Then I suggested a teaching/prayer group focused on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. He agreed. Over the course of our weeks together, God knit together a small band committed to a healing Body.

We continue to meet and now include prayer for other sexual issues. Outside the group, I delight in meeting members of that ‘band’ as we await the Eucharist. We the broken are being built together to become something beautiful for God.

Similarly, Annette and I are running a pilot group in order to revise Living Waters. We have been working through the new material with a group composed of Protestant and Catholic members. Jesus unites us with our common desire to be good gifts to one another as men and women. Several members are church leaders who want to see Living Waters flow into their churches. God is healing us so that we might bring more healing to His house.

Home. Christmas reminds us that family should include Christ’s Body. May we gather to adore Him and bless the new life growing among us. We are His very Body: living, growing, healing to become a refuge for the broken and a resting place for His glory.

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Ache of God

Praying 40 days for repentance over sexual sin would be a vain task unless we encountered His ache of love for us.

Prayer unites us with His ache. Beneath His cross, we witness silently His naked broken body. Like rain from heaven, blood and water flow into our shameful nakedness and unites us with the Love that seeks nothing other than our good. Sexual sinners like you and I concur tearfully with Pope Benedict: ‘Any talk of love must begin with the open side of Christ.’

He aches for us, for our good, hating sin (never us!) only because it destroys us. So He pours Himself out generously, and awaits the time when we might stop beneath His cross and satisfy our misdirected appetites on Love alone.

He aches for us! He wants communion with us! Have you ever felt the acute pain of betrayal when a mere creature violated his/her covenant with you? How much more does our Creator ache when we bypass Him for a mere human image of Himself?

Having suffered to secure us in Love, He wants to waste none of His sorrows. He aches for us to abide beneath the cross, to linger there. He wants to reorient us around His ache for us; He delights when we soak in the water that cleanses and refreshes us, the blood that becomes our new life. We fulfill His ache when we welcome His passion as the foundation of our lives.

40 days of focused prayer may not be enough to reorient us wholly around His ache. But it’s a good start. And when we with broken hearts kneel before the cross welcome the fruit of His broken heart for us, we learn to pray for others.

God gives us His ache for the lonely and the lost; we grieve with Him for those wasting themselves on mere images of God. God wants them, Father to child, Bridegroom to bride. Prayer changes us by orienting us around His ache: first for us, and through our prayers, for the people He made and longs to redeem.

‘How beautiful you are, my darling. Oh, how beautiful! Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face lovely.’ (S of S 2:2, 14)

Please join us starting Friday, September 28th, for our 40 days of repentance. You can download the PDF of the entire 40-day devotional now at : pray.desertstream.org.

If you want us to email you the PDF, or to send you a paper copy of the devotional, email Ann at aarmstrong@desertstream.org.

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True Justice

‘The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.’ (PS 103:6)

‘Defending the institution of marriage as a social reality is ultimately a question of justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike.’ Pope Benedict

My wife Annette observed an 8-year-old boy in a waiting room trying to make sense of a photo in People magazine of two men in tuxes, probably a feature on some celeb ‘gay wedding.’ Wide-eyed, and too truthful to have anything but a visceral response to the madness, he said: ‘Are those guys… you know, together? That’s real scary.’

No scarier than the wedding photo in front of me of two men, 20-years apart yet mirror images of each other, with their adopted 4-year-old daughter between them. Her smile is stained, theirs soft and wide as they beam through her at each other. A glimpse of unrealized manhood, a girl in trouble, and the hemorrhaging of justice in the form of ‘gay marriage.’

Children become parents, purveyors of truth, when we celebrate and seal the disintegration of gender identity in ‘gay weddings.’

Consider a young man—Ben—whom I just met at a healing conference. Having come to terms with his own same-sex attraction, he possesses a firm resolve to reach for all that Christ has for him. He also just discovered that his father is now ‘out’ as an active ‘gay man’ and is urging his son to do likewise. Ben’s first task was to set a firm boundary with his deluded father and make decisions for his own integration as a man, including coming to this conference. (Check it out: Ministry of Pastoral Care, founded by Leanne Payne. Excellent)

Over the course of our week together, I observed the Holy Spirit moving upon Ben. He received grace in such abundance that confessing his sin, and grieving over his damaged father and the arc of damage in his life thus far occurred readily, gently. Through a host of Christian loved ones who accompany him on this journey, he will continue to take hold of all for which Christ took hold of him.

In truth, Jesus’ justice for those with same-sex attraction lies in recognizing how oppressed we are and repenting unto the only One who can help us.

On the other hand, justice is thwarted when we redefine marriage. ‘Gay marriage’ validates the disintegration of gender identity for parents and children alike.

‘Marriage is not something abstract or neutral that the law may legitimately define and re-define to please those who are powerful and influential.

No-one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. Marriage is an objective reality—a covenantal union of husband and wife—that it is the duty of the law to recognize for the sake of justice and for the common good. If it fails to do so, genuine social harms follow.

First, the religious liberty of those for whom this is a matter of conscience is jeopardized. Second, the rights of parents are abused as family life and sex education programs in schools are used to teach children that an enlightened understanding recognizes as ‘marriages’ sexual partnerships that many believe are non-marital and immoral. Third, the common good of society is damaged when the law itself becomes a tool for eroding a sound understanding of marriage on which the flourishing of the marriage culture in any society vitally depends.

And is it is out of love (and not hate) and prudent concern for the common good (not prejudice), that we pledge to labor unceasingly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman and to rebuild the marriage culture.

How could we as Christians do otherwise? The Bible teaches us that marriage is a central part of God’s creation covenant. Indeed the union of husband and wife mirrors the bond between Christ and His church.

Just as Christ was willing out of love, to give Himself up for the Church as a complete sacrifice, we are willing in love to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage.’

( If you are interesting in reading The Manhattan Declaration concerning marriage please click here.)

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Merciful Discipline 6: Humbled, We Shine

This is the sixth post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 6: Humbled, We Shine

‘When You disciplined us, we could barely whisper a prayer.’ (IS 26:16)

‘Christ’s abiding presence in the midst of our suffering is gradually transforming our darkness into light.’ Pope Benedict

The sexual abuse crisis in the Church brings us to our knees. We do not kneel politely but painfully, a sprawl rather than a pose. On behalf of those felled by the weight of a priest’s perversion, we too stumble and fall. Behold the scandal we share: the Greek word ’skandalon’ means stumbling block, a sizable obstacle in the path of another’s salvation.

Pope Benedict is right. Our ‘skandalon’ has “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.”

Lent redeems our falling by redirecting it. Lent points us to another stumbling block, the Crucified Christ (1Cor 1:23), who draws us magnetically to Himself amid the suffering and shame of abuse and its cover-up. He invites us to fall forward into Himself, the sole Source that can bear the unbearable. Any momentum toward obliterating the stumbling block of sexual abuse in the Church begins facedown before the Cross. We repent for the disintegration of lives, the shattering of trust, and how abuse mocks the Church and her championing the dignity of each life.

Shame is transformed into substantial good at the Cross. Just as there is a momentum to the evil of abuse, fanning out like fissures from an earthquake, so repentance before the Crucified overcomes evil. Jesus Himself assumes the web of wounds and rouses the darkened Church, preparing her to shine once more. Our resurrection is founded on His justice and mercy. We arise in humbled passion for the integrity of our Church.

Brimming with new life, we must act. Shame’s transformation requires more than mystical transactions. Will we follow Benedict’s call to bear witness with our very lives of a transparent, integrated Church who lives the truths she upholds?

From the beginning of his papacy, Benedict faced a hemorrhaging crisis of abuse. He realized that the dignity of all people, beginning with the education of children, required the transparent integrity of the Church. To him, sexual abuse was more than an isolated problem of priestly perversion; it signaled a disturbing shift in the entire culture toward sexual values that dehumanized others.

‘Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and crude manipulations of sexuality so prevalent today.’ (Address to US Bishops, 2008)

Degradations and manipulations like the priestly abuse of children! More than ever, we need a humbled witness from the top down of sexual integration. What does it mean to live chastely? How do we acquire self-control and pass it on to a generation already exposed to more filth than at any other time in history?

The church must reclaim its beautiful (and bravely counter-cultural) teaching on chastity–beginning with her priests. We must discover together how Jesus and His community help us to actually integrate God’s will for our sexuality into the fabric of our real lives. That means more than preaching another round of conservative sexual ethics; we must also wrestle honestly with our ‘ethos’–our desires and conflicts.

Jesus wants to transform our hearts–our affections, our attitudes, our motives– that we might embody a living morality. Repentance before the Crucified is key. While sexual abuse is the ultimate ‘disintegrator’, Jesus’ redeeming power in our lives always points to integration, toward wholeness. The stench of abusive priests must be overcome by the fragrance of those priests who live chaste lives through the cross and its community. Following their good lead, we too can embody what it means to offer our chaste selves to one another.

We the laity must do our part. As the numbers of priests are declining, we must increase our commitment to transparent service of the Church. We can ensure that our dioceses have solid systems in place for responding quickly and impartially to abuse charges, and especially to the abused. These systems must become normative!

The abuse crisis has struck an inspired blow against clericalism. It has altered her ‘in-house’ mentality, and she is learning to yield substantial control to empowered laity and civil authorities. As with any organizational shift in values and praxis, this will require time and vigilance on the part of all.

Change takes time. Change is taking place. We now have a better grasp of the horror of priestly abuse and how to prevent it than we had 10 years ago. In spite of our problems, the US Church has exemplified candor for the worldwide Church whose abuses are just beginning to be revealed. Their ‘skandalon’ is ours; we have much yet to endure. We can do so through the One who endured all in order to transform our shame into glory.

Abuse has struck us down, but we are not destroyed. (2Cor 4:9) Our dying is not fatal. We see life-signs–the fruit of God’s purifying, disciplining hand. He is judging clericalism, and inspiring a more humble, candid hierarchy; He is weeding out ill-equipped candidates for the priesthood and empowering solid clerics and laity; He is calling the Church to a new integrity in how she embodies her truth.

Merciful discipline. God is having His way with His Bride.

‘The truth must come out; without the truth we will never be set free. We must face the truth of the past; repent it; make good the damage done. And yet we must move forward day by day along the painful path of renewal, knowing that it is only when human misery encounters face-to-face the liberating Mercy of God that our Church will be truly restored and enriched.’ Dublin Archbishop Martin, 2010

‘We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, leading to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.’ John Paul II

‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines forth like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.’ (IS 62:1)

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The Merciful Discipline Series of Posts (updated with each new post as they become available):

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