A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.

Taking a closer look at the pope's 'Who am I to judge?' quote

Soon after same-sex marriage became law in Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield offered a highly symbolic liturgical response -- an exorcism rite.

"Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture," he said, in his sermon. "These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye. … The deception of the Devil in same-sex marriage may be understood by recalling the words of Pope Francis when he faced a similar situation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010."

So Paprocki quoted then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, facing the redefinition of civil marriage in Argentina: "Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention (which is) destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project … but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God."

"Father of lies" is a biblical reference to Satan.

When it comes to gay-rights issues, this is probably not the first Pope Francis quotation that springs into the minds of most people following the news in preparation for his Sept. 23-27 visit to the media corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The papal visit is linked to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

An Internet search-engine query for "Francis" and the precise phrase "Who am I to judge?" yielded nearly 200,000 hits, including 4,540 in current news articles.

Soli Deo gloria -- The true legacy of a church musician

NEW YORK -- When choirmaster John Scott looked into the future he saw a spectacular addition to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, a new organ at the heart of worship services, concerts and expanding efforts to train young musicians.

The 100-stop organ would blend past and present, preserving the delicately carved 1913 cabinet and some of it distinctive pipes, but as part of an expanded design that would add both grandeur and gentleness, as well as many new tones.

"We are eager to hear our gallery horizontal trumpet put into first-class condition and just as excited that it will be joined by a new stentorian Tuba Mirabilis of imperial strength. These two stops will allow majestic fanfares to dialogue east and west," said Scott, in an enthusiastic May 31 update about the $11 million project.

"So, to sum up -- 2018 cannot come soon enough."

But Manhattan's famous Anglo-Catholic parish was stunned on August 12 when the 59-year-old Scott died of a heart attack, hours after returning from a European concert tour. Scott and his wife Lily were awaiting the birth of their first child in September.

Church leaders held a requiem Mass -- with no music -- the next day and began planning for a solemn funeral Mass on Sept. 12, allowing more people to travel to New York City for the rites. Many would come to honor an artist hailed by The New York Times and other prestigious publications, a man known for his recordings, compositions and concert-hall performances.

But people in the pews are mourning the loss of a fellow believer whose most cherished duty was to help lead others in worship, while teaching the faith and its musical heritage to their children, said the Rev. Canon Carl Turner.

From John Henry Newman to Stephen Colbert: Ancient truths on suffering and death

While it's hard to journey from the intellectual legacy of the Blessed John Henry Newman to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it can be done.

This is a story worth hearing for those truly interested in centuries of Christian teachings about pain, suffering and loss, according to the social-media maven poised to become an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

 "God's providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing," noted Bishop-elect Robert Barron, founder of Word of Fire ministries. "One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God's providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp."

 Thus, a story that ends with Colbert begins with Newman and the 19th Century Church of England. Newman's interest in ancient doctrines and worship led the famous scholar-priest into Roman Catholicism. Called a traitor by many Anglicans, Newman started over -- creating a humble oratory in industrial Birmingham. Eventually he became a cardinal and, today, many consider him a saint.

The next connection, noted Barron, writing online, was the Rev. Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest in that Birmingham oratory who shepherded two orphaned brothers after their mother died in 1904. Her family had disowned her when she became a Catholic.

One of the brothers was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings." As an adult, the Oxford don wrote a letter in which he addressed pain and suffering. A key point in the letter directly links this story to Colbert, an outspoken Catholic who is one of the most outrageous, controversial figures in American popular culture.

The comedian -- youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. -- has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. But Barron noted that, in a wrenching new GQ interview, Colbert dug much deeper than before.

During his work with Chicago's Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: "You gotta learn to love the bomb."

Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.

Donald Trump's mysterious appeal to the 'evangelical' voter niche

When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.

"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.

Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.

One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."

Why do so many religious believers keep falling for faux news reports?

It was a story guaranteed to inspire a blitz of mouse-clicks in social media in the days just after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.

"Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses," said a USA Today headline. A Michigan man was seeking $70 million from two Christian giants, claiming they -- by publishing editions of the Bible referring to homosexuality as sin -- caused "me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence ... including murder."

But there was a problem. The vast majority of those who recently read this story, commented on it or clicked "forward" and sent it to others failed to notice a crucial fact -- it was published in 2008. (Confession: I fell for it, because the version I received didn't contain the date in the actual text.)

In religious circles, the abuse of partial facts and anonymous anecdotes is as old as preachers searching for Saturday night inspiration. However, the Internet age has encouraged global distribution, making it easier for flawed or exaggerated information to go viral in microseconds.

Once these stories lodge in memory banks -- human or digital -- they live on and on. This problem is especially bad among many religious believers who tend to distrust mainstream sources of news.

True confessions about the urgent need for Catholic campus ministries

Nearly a decade ago, leaders of the St. Mary's Catholic Center next to the giant Texas A&M University campus began having an unusual problem -- they had too many students coming to Confession.

The priests were offering what was, in this day and age, a rather robust schedule for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, with 60 minutes or more time on Wednesday nights and Saturdays before Mass.

Students were queuing up and waiting. So a young priest suggested offering daily Confession, with two priests available for an hour-plus or one priest for two or three hours. But that wasn't enough, either. Now this parish dedicated to campus ministry -- with 50 full-time and part-time staffers -- offers Confession at least 10 times every week, plus by appointment.

"We still have some lines and sometimes, most days even, our priests don't have time to hear all the confessions," said Marcel LeJeune, the parish's assistant campus ministry director. "The priests don't have time to chat. … It seems that whenever we offer more opportunities for Confession, we have more people show up."

Parish leaders know all about modern campus trends with alcohol, pornography and "hooking up." They know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average age at which young Americans lose their virginities is 17 and that, between ages 20 and 24, 86 percent of males and 88 percent of females are sexually active, to varying degrees.

But the statistic LeJeune stresses is that nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23. In other words, he thinks that if Catholics are serious about influencing young people before they join the growing ranks of the so-called "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- they must invest more time and resources into campus ministries.

Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Toward a theology of barbecue and, thus, community outside the pews

The year was 1902 and the faithful at Denver's Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church decided to have a fundraiser serving up some this flock's famous barbecue.

"This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes," pitmaster Columbus B. Hill told the Denver Times during the feast. "They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices."

And all the people said? "Amen." In some pews, people would shout, "Preach it!"

For many Americans -- black and white -- it's impossible to discuss their heartfelt convictions about barbecue without using religious language. There's a reason one famous book about North Carolina barbecue, published by an academic press, is entitled "Holy Smoke."

It doesn't matter whether folks are arguing about doctrinal questions at the heart of the faith, such as, "Is barbecue a noun or a verb?" or "Pork, beef or both?" It doesn't matter if true believers are arguing about what wood to burn or the percentage of vinegar God wants them to use in the sauce. Mustard? Out of the question, except in certain South Carolina zip codes.

The bottom line: there's more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers.