Thanksgiving and a Theology of Despair

tomertu /

tomertu /

Are you feeling pressure to be thankful?

We are in the midst of the Thanksgiving season. I’m reminded everywhere I go to “Be thankful!”

Well, call me the Scrooge of Thanksgiving, but I’m just not feeling thankful. The more someone tells me to “Be thankful!” the more I feel a sense of despair.

Be thankful? In the midst of Ferguson, Mo.? Jim Wallis writes that, “Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America.” And what will white America do about it? Nothing new. One side will continue the status quo of racism by denying that it even exists and then they will blame the victims. I firmly stand in the other side that blames America’s deeply embedded structures of racism, economic injustice, and educational inequality. To make matters worse, America is sharply divided over the shooting in Ferguson. Each side of the division blames the other for tragic violence. Sunday’s heated debate on Meet the Press between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson is indicative of the deep racial tensions underlying not only Ferguson, but every city in the United States.

My Facebook news feed and the media are telling me how I’m supposed to feel about Ferguson. Outraged. Hurt. Anxious. Guilt. Anger. Bitter. But certainly not thankful.

Possible Grace

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

WHAT’S A GOOD priest for? So asks Calvary, the second feature film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, rooting itself in Ireland’s coastal landscape, centering on a pastor threatened with scapegoat-retributive murder from a grievously sinned-against parishioner. Its vibe owes a great deal to the quiet reflection of films such as Jesus of Montreal and Au Hasard Balthazar (in which a donkey evokes the love and wounds of Christ), and the archetypal Westerns High Noon and Unforgiven. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who was drawn into the church after his wife’s death, which allows us the rare experience of seeing a cinematic Catholic priest who is both a parent to his flock and to a beloved daughter, who feels somewhat abandoned by his commitment to the church.

Gleeson has the uncanny ability to hold his massive frame as both solid—almost concrete—and vulnerable. Knowing that everyone is both broken and breaker, his Father James is healing on behalf of a flawed institution, although he doesn’t confuse vocation with a job. His bishop’s response to a request for help is “I’m not saying anything,” reminding me of Daniel Berrigan’s challenge to religious hierarchies, heard at a public meeting in Dublin in the run-up to the Iraq war: “In Vietnam, they had nothing to say, and said nothing; now, they have nothing to say, and they’re saying it.”

Father James understands the difference between stewarding power and grabbing it (one obvious signal of his goodness), and he is up to his neck in the community, running the gamut from friendship with an American writer looking for inspiration in the land of his presumed ancestors to a visit with a former pupil whose own inner darkness has led him to do monstrous things.

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Why I Stay in the Church

A QUESTION ASKED of me 100 times in the last 10 years: Why do you stay in the Catholic Church? How can you stay in a church where thousands of children were raped around the world? Where men in power covered their ears to the screams of children and moved the rapists around from parish to parish so that smiling welcoming parents presented their awed shy children to the rapists like fresh meat? Where women have been marginalized and sidelined for centuries and their incredible creativity diluted and wasted and left to rot? Where power and greed and cowardice so often trumped the very humility and mercy and defiant belief in the primacy of love on which the church was founded and for which it claims to stand today?

Because, I said haltingly, in the beginning, when I was unsure of my honest answer in the face of such rapacious crime and breathtaking lies, because, because ... because how could I quit now? What sort of rat leaves the ship when it is foundering and your fellow passengers need help? Why would I quit now, of all the times to quit? How could I leave the ship in the hands of the men who nearly sank her? How could I abandon the brave honest mothers and priests and nuns and teachers and bishops and dads and monks and children who are the church, who compose the church, who sing the deepest holiest song of the real church?

Because, I said more and more energetically as the years went by, because there are men like my archbishop in my church, men who stood up to lies and crime and accepted the lash of public insult without a word, though the sins were not theirs.

Because there are people like my mom and dad in my church, who refuse to let the sweet wild idea of the church die in their souls or their lives or their parish, and refuse to let someone else define the church they know to be a continual verb, and endless possibility, the most revolutionary idea in the history of human beings, not merely a noun, a castle, a council of cassocks.

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Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter?

Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev /

Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev /

Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.

In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.

There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use, and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.

How to Forget Paris

Heart image via Shutterstock

Heart image via Shutterstock

A friend of mine — one who’s wiser and kinder and more thoughtful than I — knows the difficult, painful unweaving I’m talking about. She, too, was carroted down the rabbit trail of a hope-filled future shared with someone, only to discover her bed was left just as cold as the promises she’d so earnestly trusted.

“Falling in love is totally magical and beautiful and gives you this insane ability to operate on 4 hours of sleep a night for a long time,” she said. “It chooses you and that gift is one of life’s best ones. You have to choose it back, though.” She paused, her voice cracking, and I knew she meant it. “At some point, you become more real to each other and the hard work sets in. So you try and try, and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out. And when that happens, you’ll be ok.” I was looking at her across the table.

“Just let it be sad,” she concluded. “Ironically, sadness will be your guide out of sadness.”

#OccupySunday: Michael Moore says, "We've killed despair."

michael moore oakland
Filmmaker Michael Moore told anti-Wall Street protesters in Oakland that the Occupy movement -- which has spread to cities across America and overseas -- in inspiring millions who are angry about corporate excess, income inequality and the failure of politicians to address issues facing the majority of Americans.

"We've killed despair across the country and we've killed apathy," he said.

Watch the video of Moore's speech inside...