Giving Thanks

November 28, 2019

Today and for this week, a Thanksgiving poem by Alberto Álvaro Ríos a US academic and writer from Arizona. In 2013, Rios was named Arizona’s first poet laureate; and in 2014, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

When Giving Is All We Have

Alberto Ríos – 1952-

One river gives

Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

Spirit Wisdom

November 22, 2019

This week some words of wisdom from my theologian friend, Joseph Martos, in his excellent book: HONEST RITUALS HONEST SACRAMENTS.

One might conclude that the material world encompasses all of reality from sub-atomic particles to entire galaxies, but the fact is there are realities that cannot be detected by our five senses or by any of the devices we use to extend them. How much does love weigh? How tall is justice? How wide is compassion? Such things cannot be measured in any usual sense. Yet they are real.

Visitors to poor countries sometimes remark how happy the children are even though they do not have the toys and gadgets owned by most American children. The reason seems to be that they have caring parents and extended families within which they feel wanted and cherished. They have a sense of belonging, an awareness of community, and a sense of identity that comes in part from having responsibilities that contribute to the family’s well-being. These are important but unmeasurable realities in the lives of such children.

We tend to overlook the importance of such realities by giving them names such as values or ideals or customs or mores. But these unmeasurable realities are the ones that make our lives human and happy. Family, friendship, acceptance, respect, purpose, responsibility, love, forgiveness, courage, fidelity, trust—such things are real but they are not measurable, and they are not material realities. In that very basic sense, they are spiritual realities. Spiritual realities can be experienced, and they can be felt to be more or less intense, even if they cannot be measured.

When we begin to think about these larger issues, we enter the realm of what makes us human, and what makes life worth living. We are into the realm of relationships and commitments, values and ideals, purposes and principles that rocks and trees do not have, and that lizards and birds cannot begin to imagine. We are into the realm of spirit.

May the Spirit be with all of us!


Latinos Leaving the Catholic Church

November 15, 2019

In what some see as a landmark decision, the American Catholic bishops, during their Fall meeting this week in Baltimore, have elected Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He is the first Latino to hold the highest leadership position in the American Catholic Church. The the 67-year-old Mexican-born bishop has been a strong advocate of immigrant rights, and public supporter for newcomers as they face growing restrictions by the Department of Homeland Security and other US federal agencies.

For many years the US Catholic bishops have looked to Latinos/Latinas to maintain a strong Catholic presence in the United States. Now however, they are confronted with a new US Catholic development: Latinos/Latinas, in growing numbers, are saying “Adiós” to the Catholic Church.

Ten years ago, according to the Pew Research Center, 57% of US Catholics were Latino/Latina. Today that figure is 47%, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report.

Curiously, we see as well a rise in the number of American Latinos/Latinas who are becoming Muslims. In 2009, only 1 percent of Muslims identified as Latino/Latina. By 2018, it was 7 percent. The American Muslim Association of North America, based in North Miami, says heavily Latino/Latina South Florida in particular is home to a rising number of Latino/Latina Muslims.

Why the Latino exodus?

In part, the decline of Catholics among Latinos/Latinas reflects religious changes underway in Latin America, where evangelical churches have been gaining adherents in a region that historically has been overwhelmingly Catholic. It also reflects religious changes taking place in the United States, where the Catholic Church has an ongoing problem of loosing adherents through religious switching/conversion, and, especially among younger people, through the growth of the religiously unaffiliated.

Latinos/Latinas leaving Catholicism have also reacted against a perceived ongoing clerical sexual abuse problem, a belief that most priests are gay, and a growing religious impersonalization as parishes, due to a shortage of priests and falling parish membership, become larger amalgamations of closed but formerly open churches. Larger churches handle crowds but do not create personalized communities. Latinos/Latinas are drawn to smaller born-again, Pentecostal, or evangelical Protestant communities where people know each other and form networks of friends. They seek as well a personal and direct connection with God, without the interference of an institution or clergy.

The phenomenon of Latino/Latina departure covers a broad spectrum. The recent changes in religious affiliation are broad-based, occurring among men and women, those born in the United States and those born abroad, and those who have attended college as well as those with less formal education. The changes are also occurring among Latinos/Latinas of Mexican origin (the largest single origin group) and those with other origins.

The departure changes, however, occur primarily among Latino/Latina adults under the age of 50. Among Latinos aged 18-29, virtually all movement has been away from Catholicism and toward no religious affiliation: joining the “nones.” Among those aged 30-49, the movement has been away from Catholicism and toward evangelical Protestantism or no religious affiliation. Among Latinos/Latinas ages 50 and older, the changes in religious identity are not statistically significant.

Latinos/Latinas, like other Catholics, are also showing and reacting to a kind of Catholic fatigue. They are tired of weakened Catholic credibility, tired of the slow pace of change about issues of women in ministry, sexual abuse, and now a fierce polarization between supporters of Pope Francis and those, like the US Cardinal Raymond Burke, who are convinced Francis is a dangerous heretic destroying orthodox belief. Since the late 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelicals have also become allies in the culture war that has shaped American partisan politics. (Since the 1970s non-Latino/Latina white Catholics have voted majority Republican while a majority of Latino/Latina Catholics have voted Democrat.)

Yes I call it “Catholic fatigue.” A contemporary fatigue-generating example: In their November 12th meeting, the US bishops have voted to approve close to 300 new hymn texts for the Liturgy of the Hours. The US bishops must now receive confirmation from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which can take months or a year to process. Hymn texts are certainly a pressing issue these days…

Among the other issues considered on November 12th, there was much discussion about new materials to complement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the USCCB’s long-standing guide to help Catholics form their consciences in public life, including voting. Pondering the 2020 election, the bishops voted to approve the new version, including an addition that abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the outgoing president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, observed that global warming is an important issue but not urgent. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t live in Venice.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles urged the bishops to promote social media in their dioceses as one way to re-link young people with the Catholic Church. He said the church is losing young people in greater numbers and must face the challenges of how to get the religiously unaffiliated young people, back to the Catholic Church. He presented a three-minute video on the issue; and his presentation led to a discussion that lasted for more than an hour. Bishops from across the country are in agreement that the issue is of great concern. They shared ideas for bringing young people back to the church, which primarily involved more and better catechism instruction and an increased devotion to the Virgin Mary.

As a friend wrote this week, “The ultra conservative men and their followers are about to drive me from the church, along with clericalism and the pedo scandal. I am not able to set these basic things aside and still be a practicing Catholic. I love my friends in the church, but my own fragile spirit has taken a beating for years.The little time I have left on this earth, must be spent in joy filled peace.”

And so, we continue on in our faith journeys.


Political Religion

November 8, 2019

Re-reading a bit of political philosophy, I came across a 1939 quotation by the French philosopher Raymond Aron (1905-1983) who warned of ‘notre époque de religions politiques.’ If Aron were around today, he would have much to wrote about.

It is certainly no secret that the current presidential administration embraces its own brand of religion. The president speaks often of his defense of “Judeo-Christian values,” while far-right Christians like Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence have become powerful and long-serving officials in the administration. To what degree their values are genuinely Christian, however, is a question worth considering…..

Billy Graham (1918-2018) the renowned USA preacher who died last year, aired regrets later in his life about having “sometimes crossed the line” in his involvement in politics. His son Franklin has no such regrets and continues to strongly support the policies and person of the current US president. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 13,800 people attended Franklin Graham’s early October evangelistic Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina. Current polling still reports an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals who consistently express approval of the president’s handling of his job since his 2017 inauguration.

Franklin Graham calls the Trump impeachment inquiry an “unjust inquisition,” and claims that the Bible directs Americans to pray for the president. He also made a special plea last week that Americans purchase a “Pray for 45” T-shirt being sold through his organization’s website, for only $15.99. In an October 31st anti-impeachment Facebook post, Graham stressed: “Pray for President Trump today, for God to give him wisdom, protection, and guide each and every step he takes. I pray that he and Melania will sense the presence of the Lord through this unjust inquisition.” Ironically, despite Graham’s ardent opposition to the impeachment inquiry into Trump, he was one of the most vocal proponents of impeaching former President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. Apparently sexual deviance is ok for a Republican president but not for Democratic president?

The extreme Christian right promotes a very selective kind of gospel.

Paula White, a televangelist based in Florida and personal pastor to President Trump since 2002, has now joined the Trump administration in an official capacity. “When I walk on White House grounds, God walks on White House grounds…the White House is holy ground,” she said recently. She will work in the Office of Public Liaison which is the division of the White House overseeing outreach to groups and coalitions organizing key parts of the president’s base, and giving religious groups more say in White House decisions. White wrote and delivered the invocation at Trump’s January 2017 presidential inauguration in Washington, becoming the first clergywoman to lead the inaugural prayer.

White, who preaches the “prosperity gospel,” asks Americans to make a donation to her ministries to honor the religious principle of “first fruit,” which she said is the idea that all firsts belong to God, including the first harvest and, apparently, the first month of one’s salary. “If God doesn’t divinely step in and intervene, I don’t know what you’re going to face” she said. As the President prepares for a second term political campaign, he cannot afford to lose support from the religious conservatives who voted for him in 2016 in significant numbers. He is hoping that his spiritual advisor, Paula White, can help make it happen again. White is weaponizing religion for political success. She told the New York Post recently that the impeachment investigation “wears on” Trump. Nevertheless, she is unconcerned about his 2020 reelection chances: “I’ve never seen the base more energized than it is now.”

In other news this week, the Evangelical Christian Pastor, from Tennessee, Perry Stone, has claimed that Democratic lawmakers “have demons in them” and are “trying to place hexes and curses” on President Donald Trump. Stone, who founded Perry Stone Ministries and is described as a best-selling author, made the claims during a Thursday night prayer meeting last week. He argued that Trump’s demon-possessed political opponents are “trying to place hexes and curses on President Trump.”

“I have never, in any nation of the world … seen people raised up with demons in them [like] in Washington,” Pastor Stone said. “They have demons in them. You can look at their eyes when they almost start foaming at the mouth,” he said. The pastor then took aim at Democratic House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff, claiming that the representative’s “eyes get as big as saucers and it looks like he is having a seizure when you bring up [Trump’s] name.”

Stone also sells a meal package on his ministries’ website. He calls it the Lord’s Supper, and claims if you buy it from him you’ll be healed of any sickness or disease.

These “Christian” characters undermine and distort authentic Christianity. In Luke 4, we hear Jesus saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.”

Unfortunately, strongly politicized segments in various American Protestant and Catholic churches today look away from justice for the disenfranchised. They love especially themselves and love only those neighbors who meet their approval.

We do need prophets and a new reformation.

Closing reflection: Over 10,000 migrant children are now in US government custody at 100 shelters in 14 states. Political religion? The Gospel Message here?


Faith: Development or Stunted Growth

November 1, 2019 All Saints

Thinking about some well-known public personalities who, despite their age, are still rather adolescent in their beliefs and behavior, I went back to James Fowler’s understanding of faith development.

James W. Fowler (1940-2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler described faith as a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life: the way one finds coherence and meaning in the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives. In his book, Stages of Faith, he proposed that faith development occurs in six predictable stages, though not everyone progresses through all six stages; and some people get stuck in earlier stages, primarily because they cannot move beyond their own self-centeredness.

Pre-stage: Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Before Stage 1, Fowler described a Pre-Stage, of Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith, roughly from birth to age two. This is the time of developing “Trust vs Mistrust.” Here Fowler stressed that, “the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development.” Indeed, this stage provides the foundation for the future.

Holding my recently-born great-great niece a couple weeks ago, I felt so happy for her because she has been born into a warm and loving family network. Trust vs Mistrust.

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Most typically for children aged 3 to 7. Intuitive-Projective Faith is learned through stories, images, feelings, and actions from significant adults. The child’s imagination plays an important role in this stage of faith development. The child’s religious descriptions may not make sense logically, because they are symbols, images, and stories that fit together in seemingly random patterns.

The Stage 1 child learns self-awareness, without understanding that others may have a different perspective.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal Faith

In the Mythic-Literal stage, the young person begins to take on the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to a community. Faith stories are understood as logical, concrete and literal.

In Stage 2 the young believer learns to distinguish between real and make believe. Justice is based on fairness, with rewards and punishments are given based on adherence to moral rules. The person in this stage is better able to take on the perspectives of others.

God is thought of in anthropomorphic terms, described with human qualities and actions. This stage is mostly found in school age children, but some adults remain locked in this stage for their entire life. (A very important understanding for pastoral ministers….)

Stage Three: Synthetic Conventional Faith

Synthetic Conventional Faith generally develops during adolescence when personality and self-identity emerge. Interpersonal relationships and being known and accepted by a group are extremely important in this stage, because self-identity is formed as a member of the group.

Since self-identity is still developing, there is often little independent perspective beyond that of the group to which the person conforms.

Synthetic Conventional faith relies on external authority. For these reasons, many religious institutions (but political ones as well) work best with a majority of committed people locked in Stage 3. Many church authorities can be quite satisfied when most of their members maintain a Stage 3 faith of unquestioned commitment to the beliefs and practices of the church. (I remember a bishop telling me, when I was a high school teacher on Michigan, “your duty is NOT to question but to obey.”)

The beliefs and value system of Stage 3 are unexamined and tacitly held. Like fish in a fish bowl, people in Stage 3 are unable to view their system from the outside and unable to understand that there are other systems, other fish bowls.

Transition to Stage 4 can only be precipitated by the experience of leaving home, either emotionally or physically, or both. This can occur through marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, or joining the military, when the Stage 3 person encounters people from other groups and different perspectives.

I was edged out of Stage 3 when, as a young man, I left Southwestern Michigan to become a graduate student in Louvain, Belgium. It was exciting but unsettling as well.

Today, I try to nudge people toward a higher stage of faith development, through educational trips, engagement with other cultures, and interfaith dialogue: placing people in contact with other people with differing world-views.

Some people of course don’t want to be confronted with a differing world-view. They regress or retreat to a fundamentalist or even fascist perspective. Donald Trump and his supporters are found here; although one can really question whether or not DJT has any genuine Christian faith.

Stage 4: Individuate-Reflective Faith

Individuate-Reflective Faith usually begins in young adulthood with exposure to the wider world of diverse cultures and perspectives. This can be a time of disequilibrium as unexamined beliefs and values are called into question and compared to alternative value systems.

Authority in Stage 3 comes EXTERNALLY from the group. In Stage 4, authority shifts INTERNALLY to the self, with an emphasis on individuality, independence, and self-fulfillment. The individual makes her- or his own judgments about values and beliefs.

Previously accepted religious symbols, practices, and biblical narratives can be rejected as naïve. People at this stage often reject traditional faith of any kind. Today, a lot of millennials and post-millennials are at this stage, as well as the people whom sociologists call the “nones.”

As an older fellow, I am especially interested in this group, because they are often asking all the right questions.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Conjunctive Faith is rare before midlife. With it comes a greater acceptance of diversity, complexity, mystery, and paradox.

Conjunctive Faith is often called the “second naïvete.” Previously rejected religious symbols and practices are now reaffirmed as tools that help one encounter God and the truth, rather than as merely ends in themselves. One begins to appreciate life as a journey of discovery.

Knowing reality in Stage 5 is characterized by a willingness to let reality speak its word. One develops wisdom and an appreciation in knowing things as they are, without seeking to modify, control, or order them to fit one’s prior categories.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

Stage 6, Universalizing Faith is extremely rare.

James Fowler mentions people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples of people who reached a Universalizing Faith. People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate to others without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions of those in other stages.

The perspectives and actions of Stage 6 people often run counter to the surrounding culture. They see all men and women as part of a universal family. They selflessly serve others. Many of them are persecuted and martyred in life, but later revered in death.

Concluding thoughts: While there is some predictability due to age and intellectual development, progression through these stages of faith is not automatic. Some people move more slowly than others from one stage to the next. And some people remain in earlier stages throughout their adult lives.

In all of this, the Christian community plays a key role. A kind of “sponsorship” by the community can make a significant difference as people move from one stage to the next and they grow in their faith. A sponsoring – ministering – community can provide affirmation, encouragement, guidance for a person’s ongoing growth and development.

May we continue our journey together …..