Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Every now and then, I look at the stats on my site meter.
Turns out that for a long time, the most common "hit" I get on this site has not been any post full of great and erudite spiritual food, but a 2007 post I made showing off my triquetra tattoo when I got it (above.)
I think ever since the show "Charmed," triquetras became hot items in the tattoo parlor. I get hits all over the word from people Googling "triquetra tattoo."
Yeah, there is a part of me that wishes it was one of my more pithy spiritual ramblings. But actually, I'm okay with that.
I've come to the conclusion that tattoo can be a form of ministry.
It's not quite a "sign upon my hand or forehead," but I got it to represent the Trinity, and how Trinity-Kirksville became a part of my life. I figure if someone stumbles across it merely searching for a design for a new tattoo, they don't just visit this page and "hit" it, they discover the opportunity to visit my whole blog.
The number of folks with tattoos these days is a rather sizable number of the younger to middle aged population, and a lot of folks these days also get a "wild hare" and get one, and the number one reason folks get one is that they are wanting express something--a thought, a feeling, a person or life situation dear to them. Often they are to affiliate themselves with something bigger than themselves--a school, or a branch of the military, perhaps--and they are placing it upon their body as an outward sign of this affiliation or expression.
Well...isn't that what we want our transformation as Christians to do? Don't we want what is inside of us to become a visible and outward sign of our life in Christ as a child of God? Don't we want the light of God to be "tattooed" all over us?
People looking to connect others to a story of their life shop for tattoos. People looking to connect others to a story of their life also seek to connect to God. I figure it's always possible for a person who started out "scoping out tattoo designs" temporarily put that on hold to nose around my blog for a spell. Looking at my site meter, it appears that about one in 20 to 25 hits on my post with this tattoo spend longer on my blog than they had planned. I can see where they started out Google searching for a triquetra tattoo, and then instead of exiting it a couple of minutes later, they hit a few more pages...usually they go to the newest posts.
Sometimes I wonder what happens from that. If all they wanted was to get some ideas from my tattoo design, great. I'm glad to share. But I wonder if once in a while, they don't get a little more curious about God than they realized they were.
All of them are in my prayers.
(Photo by Michael Nejman)
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
One of the things I constantly struggle with in my online EfM class is trying to understand Scripture with something beyond my limited 21st century mind, and try to see the minds and hearts of the people who wrote it thousands of years ago.
This year, year two in my EfM journey, is the New Testament. One of the things I often think about as I study my lessons this year is how the culture at the time shaped the Jesus story--especially at the time the early church started to move from being "disaffected Jews" to reaching out to Gentiles. Paul's letters speak almost constantly of the tension in this regard. Their had to be a place where these early disciples, rooted in their Jewish tradition, had to feel comfortable enough to give the Jesus story away beyond the context of "how it fit in Judaism." They had to, in what we now know from Benedictine hospitality, embrace the concept of "welcoming the other."
This article also piqued my imagination in this regard. Our parish, in this interim period, took on the task of "exploring our abilities in hospitality." We had some town hall meetings where some "touchy truths" came out. One touchy truth was that we thought of ourselves as very hospitable to "the other" but it was easy to say that when 85% of our parish is either faculty, staff, or student at Truman State University. It brought up a hard question--what does our statement mean, in light of our demographic? Does it mean we can be hospitable to the community with the right doorways in place? Does it mean we have never been tested on the edges of this community? Or did it mean we really weren't as hospitable as we thought we were?
Our town meetings in the beginning phase of our search process spoke to this. Some who were part of the "other 15%" spoke up as to feeling excluded. Some of the 85% admitted they really liked being surrounded by their friends on Sunday or among a more educated community, because they really didn't know how or were uncomfortable talking to people who were "much" different. Some expressed a desire for the community to be more heterogeneous.
More illustrations came out in the Town Hall meetings. One is that although we identify ourselves as a very "musical" church (our little choir is known throughout the Diocese) some people thought there was "too much music." We also have a sizable minority of "quiet, contemplative worship loving" types. Some thought that although we love our music, if we are true to our desire to get some younger newcomers, our love of four-part harmony and the hymnal won't cut it. I always thought music was truly the one sacred cow this parish had, and I watched people gently prod the sacred cow. That truly surprised me in these meetings.
I know I worked very hard to hear what people were saying in the meetings, and I came to realize that taking on being earnest about wanting hospitality might well be the best endeavor we could have picked, but it will also be the raggedest growing edge.
What it made me realize is in order to "welcome the other," we first have to admit there is an "other" and let the "other" speak to us.
Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.
Part of the Gaelic tradition still practiced by the modern day Irish is the concept of the Anam Cara--the true "soul friend." In Irish culture, these are the friends in your life that seem to always be a part of your life no matter what the ebb and flow of both lives--the ones that when you hang together, everything "fits" and you can even simply be comfortable together in wordlessness. They are not necessarily "The friends you spend the most time with," although there are times in your life when they might be. They are the kind of friends that when you have not seen each other for years, you pick right up where you left off. When they leave, you find yourself pining or longing for them but it dissipates and you know it will be fine until the next time.
In short, it is a friendship that is a form of true love.
American culture does not handle this type of love well because, in my opinion, we don't have enough words for "love." We have the word "love," and it has to make do for everything from how we feel about cherry cheesecake to who we partner off with for sexual intimacy.
The ancient Greeks did this one far better. They had eros and filios and agape--sexual love and love like a sibling and a more or less "awesome love" where we just find ourselves in awe of people for who they are. They were wise enough to give these loves different words.
My theory is that when we love another human being, that love is composed of a mixture of all three of these types of love, and a love that falls under the Gaelic idea of anam cara is heavy in filios and agape, and eros doesn't really play a huge part in it. One of your soul friends might be your sexual mate (probably ought to be, really), but "desire to be sexually intimate with the person" is not a requirement.
That's another place where American culture falls on its nose a little. We seem a little squeamish about being the least bit psychologically intimate with people with whom we don't plan to be sexually intimate--less so than many other cultures, and less so even than with Americans of the past. Think back to old photos of baseball and football teams in the 1890's. They are not lined up like soldiers, but are more relaxed and intimate. For instance, study this picture of the University of Michigan football team:
(Click on photo to enlarge)
Look carefully at how many of the young men are touching each other. The two men on the left are touching hands and both hands are rested on the one young man's knee. Imagine what would be said if a modern football team sat like that for their team photo! But in an era when it was not unusual for young people to die of infectious disease, accident, and childbirth, people weren't so squeamish about a certain level of physical intimacy or psychological intimacy. Perhaps when life was shorter and more unpredictable--when the hand of death was a more real and felonious object in day to day life, it made people a little more likely to "talk flowery" to each other and allow a certain level of spiritual intimacy that now, we have no room in which to place it. We don't seem to know quite what to do with it in a healthy way, and we are so attuned to the pathological manifestations of inappropriate intimacy, I worry that we have lost the ability to safely return to being able to love and be loved in some of the ways our ancestors did.
I also worry that we don't have the ability to understand the "up" side of celibacy, let alone the ability to discuss it.
It's a subject I wish were more open to discussion outside the circle of "vowed Roman Catholic religious and a few other vowed religious." Here's the problem...
When a person is celibate for a period of time, it's very hard to discuss with non-celibates because the knee-jerk reaction is, "You're just sayin' that to make yourself feel better, because you ain't gettin' any." But it is my belief that just as we are called to our secular professions, some people are called to secular expressions of celibacy for indeterminate periods of time. These periods may be temporary or permanent.
But it's not like people are clamoring to hear what celibacy has to add to one's spirituality. Celibacy is viewed too much as simply "the absence of sexual activity," and it gets constantly blamed for the root cause of sexual pathology in the church. It has become an even worse "aberrency," in some ways, than being in a same sex relationship has.
What I have discovered when I have been able to talk to secular people who admit their present celibate state, and as a person presently in that category (I jokingly refer to myself among my closer friends as "The Accidental Celibate",) is that being without a sexual partner does NOT excuse people from withholding love. There is always a need to love and be loved. It is simply part of the human condition. Healthy celibates learn to be attuned to opportunities to practice filios and agape. Some find that they actually fall in love with the ability to see the love of Christ in people in a way they would not have been aware of, if they had devoted the love and energy to loving a single person for the purpose of gaining regular sexual intimacy. Some find they can be more in love with the world than they thought was possible.
I can only speak for myself on this one, but I think back to one of the most frequent complaints a past intimate partner had with me, that ultimately broke us up. He said, "I want you for myself. I get tired of having to love a whole damn crowd of people." He wasn't being selfish--I think he only wanted what society expects of intimate pairings. But in retrospect, I realized I wanted to be in love with a bigger world than just one person, and truthfully, I was a failure at being able to devote my attention to him in the way he expected. He wasn't pathological, or needy, or a bad person at all. He just told the truth as he saw it. Unfortunately, it took me a couple more intimate pairings to realize I might be called to loving the world as a form of a soul friend more than I was being called to love a single person as an intimate partner...and when it happened, it wasn't like I woke up one day and said, "Today, I will be celibate until God tells me not to." I just sort of drifted to this celibate place and one day realized, "Gee. I like who I am much better than when I was trying to force paired relationships."
But these are conversations that we can't seem to have in the church. Many church "singles groups" exist solely as a meat market. We only seem to promote celibacy among teens, and for many churches, that message is simply, "God says don't have sex until you're married." Our climate with dealing with sexual exploitation makes it difficult to talk about celibacy outside of a vowed religious life, and even then we question the psyches of those who vow to be celibate. You must be a little pathological to even consider it, right? What are you hiding? Are you gay and just don't want to tell anyone? Are you a pervert who feels guilty? Are you impotent or frigid?
It's just not a healthy climate in the church to even have these discussions. But maybe we need to, simply to explore the notion of "three part love." Maybe we need to have these discussions so people who are in committed sexual relationships don't feel so squeamish about loving others with the love of filios and agape.
I don't know any answers, but I know we are long overdue to talk this one out at the kitchen table.
By his blood, he reconciled us.
By his wounds, we are healed.
--from Eucharistic Prayer C, p. 370, Book of Common Prayer
I was reading an interesting article in one of the "trade journals" some while back about "occupational injuries in pathology." It should come as no surprise that the most likely place on the body that pathologists get injured is along a C-shaped line running from the back of the thumb around the web of skin between the thumb and first finger of the non-dominant hand.
It makes total sense because the non-dominant hand is the hand in which we hold the tissue that our dominant hand is going to cut with a knife.
I was thinking about that the other day when I was praying. I tend to look at my own hands a lot when I'm praying. If I'm outdoors, I like to gaze in my chiminea fire. If I'm indoors and have candles, I tend to gaze at the candles. But when there's no fire to gaze upon, or no nature to gaze into, I tend to look at my own hands during prayer. I realized I have some pretty significant scars on my non-dominant hand. Not all of them are from cutting tissue and having something slippery get loose, but several of the scars are.
It made me realize something. Many of the wounds we carry on our skin were accidentally self-inflicted, and sometimes with the best of intentions. But they are wounds just the same, and the scars become a reminder that in this world, this happens a lot. In the case of this article, it's a reminder that anyone who cuts tissue for a living WILL wound him/herself. Period.
Wounds--all wounds, whether accidental, self-inflicted, or inflicted by others, give us pause.
I have spent much of my adult life around people in the "healing professions." I know a ton of folks not just in medicine, but in social work, church work, rehab work, etc. The titer of "wounded healers" is incredibly high in all of them. It could even be our wounds that drive us to those professions. What's odd is we are there, and we most likely will also not only bring our old wounds with us, but experience new wounds in our various professions, and often, remain in those professions anyway...or switch to a different healing profession. We rarely leave "a life of healing" totally behind. Sure, sometimes people leave and go a totally different direction--if they do it often is to become money driven almost to the point of being mercenary about it--kind of a full reverse of sorts--but mostly we remain healers of one sort or another.
We spill our own blood in various forms of self-sacrifice in the hope that others can be reconciled, and in the hopes we are reconciled to higher things. We find our own healing in the stories of others' healing that they share. Life sure has a tendency to mimic the Eucharist, doesn't it? Perhaps the old saw of "imitation being the sincerest form of flattery" holds true there.
But the fact remains that wounded "wounded healers" lose their power, and healthy "wounded healers" gain power.
Part of that health for us is to recognize what we are imitating. It's interesting to note that every time I hear the above words in Eucharistic Prayer C, I silently think about Christ's wounds and my wounds mixing together like ingredients in the bread and wine. I think about them being transformed from sickness and pain into food and drink. Something that gets in the way of life becomes not just something to sustain life but to renew life, and not just my life, not just the lives of people I touch, but life I scarcely know about.
That is simply an awe-filled level of healing, and it makes me realize that the world runs on an army of wounded healers. We have a choice every day to be a "wounded" wounded healer and opt out, or be a "healthy" wounded healer and opt in. It is our choice.
I wish you not a path devoid of clouds, nor a life on a bed of roses,
Not that you might never need regret,
nor that you should never feel pain.
No, that is not my wish for you.
My wish for you is:
That you might be brave in times of trial,
when others lay crosses upon your shoulders.
When mountains must be climbed and chasms are to be crossed,
When hope can scarce shine through.
That every gift God gave you might grow with you
and let you give your gift of joy to all who care for you.
That you may always have a friend who is worth that name,
whom you can trust and who helps you in times of sadness,
Who will defy the storms of daily life at your side.
One more wish I have for you:
That in every hour of joy and pain you may feel God close to you.
This is my wish for you and for all who care for you.
This is my hope for you now and forever.
--Traditional Irish Blessing
I was thinking about a certain personality I've seen in laboratories for my entire career.
Every hospital lab has at least one. Here's kind of the stereotype:
Female laboratory technologist or pathologist, older, they range from a little quirky to somewhat crochety to downright difficult at times. Either never married, or was married once to a total SOB and finally divorced him; never remarried. Sometimes there are grown children in the story, or grown nieces/nephews/peripheral relatives who sponge off of them. Totally, TOTALLY seem married to the job. Many times the rest of us are not even entirely sure WHAT they do outside of work. They retire--sometimes a little later than they ought to, and when you never see them again, you, on occasion, worry that they have no life.
Sometimes that stereotype is true.
But more often than not, you discover a surprise.
Time passes and they die. You go to the visitation or the funeral, thinking, "I ought to go; for all I know, there won't be 15 people there." You've been telling people how sad and boring and lonesome their life must have been. It's a pitiful story.
But then you walk into the funeral home or the church, and the place is packed. A lot of them are people you don't know, or people you had no clue knew the person...and in chatting with folks, you discover they had an incredibly full life. Just one totally outside the realm of work, and they were just incredibly good at keeping their work life and their outside-of-work life very separate. You look at the pictures on the "memory board" and you find they had traveled to places you never knew they'd been. You discover things about their past you never knew. You find out things like they were a master gardener or a ranked bridge player. But, since it was never "work," and they were so dedicated at work when they WERE at work, they just didn't waste time with idle chit-chat about such things.
For a while, this knowledge is uplifting; you're pleasantly surprised.
But then you feel sort of ashamed of yourself after a few days...because you realize in all those years of knowing them, you never took the time to find these things out when you worked around them. You wasted a chance to discover an interesting life.
I was thinking about that when I watched the video above, because it reminded me about how God's presence is among each of us sometimes.
All this time you thought they were lonely, and it turns out you were the one that was the "isolated" one.
The line in the prayer above about wishing the recipient to feel God in every hour of joy and pain reminds me of the quote by Desiderius Erasmus, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present."
Just as the quirky techs I've met over the years had an entire life that was always there, whether I saw it or not, the presence of God is always there in each of us, whether I see it or not in others, or whether I feel it or not within myself. I thought of that in a different way drinking my coffee outside the other morning. This really great gentle morning breeze was blowing. I thought to myself, "You know, the air is always here, all around us. But it's only when the wind blows that we bother to acknowledge it."
Just as I have experienced that initial pleasant surprise at the funeral home, I get a similar surprise when I have "discovered" the presence of God in a place I've never seen. But that initial discovery is also often followed by the similar, and sadder, realization that it was there all along, and I never bothered to see it, or ask about it, or be joyful in it. How much of our lives do we waste "not noticing?"
"hope it is a great trip and will exceed your expectations. It seems to me that is how God often works - exceeding whatever it is we can imagine! Praying for your safety and air in your tires while you are traveling! You can probably get some kind of blog post out of that -your priest praying for air - some connection with the breath of life."
--portion of e-mail from our parish's priest associate
Well, there's a story in this, of course...
For the two weeks prior to my trip out to Casper, Wyoming, I dealt with a pesky flat tire problem. Four flats in 2 weeks--all the same tire. It eventually resulted in me replacing the tire just before I left. I was getting a lot of razzing from various sources about that.
Our parish's priest associate is pretty down to earth and practical. Her spontaneous prayers are pretty straightforward and not at all lofty and ethereal. So I got a pretty good grin about her actually praying for air--specifically the air in my tires. It seems like "praying for nothing" but in this case, air is everything.
I had read her e-mail en route, and it got me to thinking on the 14.5 hour drive about all four of the elements--how the Holy Spirit is fire, and how the "bread of life" comes from the earth, and how our lives are connected by the waters of baptism--but particularly about that "breath of life" in each of us.
Without that air in my tires, at a pressure higher than that outside the tire, we're sunk on any car trip, whether it's to the grocery store, or halfway across the country. We can no longer move forward. This is not as easy as it seems. For that air to stay in that tire, at the proper pressure, it requires a sturdy and solid tire with no holes AND a wheel rim on that tire that allows the tire to fit properly to the wheel. It has to be the right size of tire.
In a sense, that air within the tire, under the right amount of pressure, becomes "more than air." It becomes something solid. Too little and you either have a flat or risk damaging the walls of the tire via under-inflation. Too much and the tire may develop a breach when hitting a road hazard that the tire ordinarily would handle fine.
The Hebrew word used for "breath of life" in the Genesis creation story is "nyshamah." It is a word not used much beyond the early books in the Old Testament. "Nyshamah" is not an easy word to translate. It means a type of "breath" that is a combination of human breath, God's breath (spirit), and the breath of every living thing. It also implies a "creative breath" and is used contextually in the Old Testament in the theme of creation.
This is a little different than the Greek word "Pneuma," although that is how the Greeks translated "Nyshamah." "Pneuma" implies a certain degree of "wind" or "movement," such as the moving of the Holy Spirit. In looking at the two words in online lexicons, I don't think they are exactly the same. "Nyshamah" is more like the air in the tire--air that just IS, air that is simply "our being"--whether the tire moves or not. It's air that gives us shape and form and purpose.
What it makes me realize that a very simple prayer for a very simple thing--air in our tires--becomes very profound when we think of the air in our spiritual tires. What a wonderful prayer it makes to pray for the element that shapes our being, enables us to move OR simply stand still, and challenges us to journey with God despite the road hazards!
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
--A prayer attributed to St. Francis, p. 833, Book of Common Prayer
I always think of my own very short version of what the gist of the St. Francis prayer means to me:
"Lord, bless (person who messes with my head); change me.
Lord, grant peace and healing to (situation I can't stand); change me.
But whatever happens, change me."
Sometimes I joke that I have a tendency to forgive someone before I really understood what I was forgiving them for in the first place, and maybe that's not so bad--because every time I want to re-visit that situation, to replay my anger and get angry all over again, I sort of stop and glance up and go, "Oh, yeah...I forgave them already. Damn."
But I find in doing that, I am much more likely to live up to what I told God, than if I let it sit and fester.
Some versions of the prayer use the words "forgiving" and "forgiven" instead of "pardoning" and "pardon."
"Pardon" is a rather old-fashioned word, and in some ways, its meaning has changed a little. You hardly ever hear people say, "Pardon me," in these parts--most people around here say "Excuse me," or "Scuze me." "Pardon" seems so formal. "The governor gave him a pardon." These days, it seems more associated with a crime.
But in reality, the word has lost a little in translation. It comes from the Latin word perdonare, which actually means, "to give wholeheartedly." Not exactly the same as the word "forgive."
"Forgive" implies the ability for the one who was wronged to have power over the transgressor. I'm not really sure we truly have power over those who wronged us; in fact, I am pretty sure we don't. But the word "pardon," in its original sense, does not seem to be a "control word." It is more of a liberating word--it raises the possibility that the pardonER is giving up any claims over that person.
But at least to me, the word "pardon" implies a willingness to give up control--to let things go as they may, with, ideally, no future need for control, and no need to feel one way or the other about the outcome.
Really, the act of pardoning is transformational for both the person granting pardon AND the person being pardoned...a transformation that mimics resurrection. Death turns into life. I often think of Lazarus, in his grave and stinking, and have often wondered, "When he came out, alive, did he still stink, and the stink kind of wore off after a spell, or did he come out not stinking?"
I am sure many of you all will want to scrap with me on this one, but I kind of want to believe he still smelled bad, and everyone around him had to adapt for a few days, as did he. I say that because when I have been the one pardoned, it took me a while to trust that I really WAS pardoned.
Thinking back to the last time someone truly pardoned me, I remember it took me a while to believe it. You see, I had learned decades ago the old "abuser-codependent" game where you say "I'm sorry," just to get someone to stop a bad behavior. Then they say they're sorry, they won't do it again, etc. etc., and you know and they know that they will, and hopefully you both will repeat as needed. So when people tell you that your transgressions are forgiven, you just sort of learn they really aren't, that they will be brought back up in your face again, and that is how people can take ancient history and keep fighting the same wars over and over again.
But some time ago, I remember apologizing to someone who didn't do that game, and being told, "We're going to put that behind us and start over, ok?...and I mean it, really mean it. But you have to believe I mean what I say there. I know you're not used to it being this way."
I thought, "Ok, I am going to give this a try." But over the next several weeks I kept a very wary eye on "whether this was for real, or just the same old crap." I probably even tested it a couple of times. But over time, I recognized that pardoning was for real.
Now, that's not to say this person hasn't hurt my feelings or disappointed me in a minor way since. That doesn't mean I haven't gotten on that person's raw nerve a few times. But it turns out, as far as I can tell, I really WAS pardoned. But I still had to walk around with the stench of my own death in my nose about it, and let that smell wear off.
Transformation is simply not usually an instantaneous thing; rather, it is more likely to happen in inches, and over some unspecified length of time. It is not a timed event, either. No two transformations happen in the exact time frame. Nor, I believe, is transformation a "single" event. To me, they appear ongoing, additive, and synergistic.
For isnstance: Perhaps we have an initial transforming event. We might have needed transformational event "A" as a prerequisite for transformational event "B" to even begin to occur. Then event "B" becomes stronger and more genuine because of the power within event "A." Over time we might discover that originally that power was "A" plus "B" but as time marches on, it becomes bigger than the power of "A" plus "B" because we see many other transformations occurring as a result of its power.
Looking at transformation in this way creates something that literally feels like it defies the laws of the universe--and you can't beat a trasnformation like that!
2 Corinthians 10:3,4:
Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.
I invite you to read this article in the New York Times before we go further with this discussion.
What in the world, might you wonder, does an article with athletic obsession have to do with our spirituality?
Two of the things many of us are prone to are obsessions and compulsions. There are a lot of us out there who would not be "diagnose-able" with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but sort of "live on the edge." If we look at our past behaviors, we would see that we have a problem with the boundary between "Passion" and "Obsession." We might have these passions for things that are healthy things--like exercise or healthy eating or hobbies--but if we don't reality check ourselves, they become obsessions. In the article above, it's easy to see that for some of these runners, running ceased to be a passion and became an obsession a long time ago, to the point they are willing to damage their physical health to continue running.
I think it's time I talk about a part of my life that some of my friends are sort of puzzled that it "mysteriously disappeared." This is the first time I have ever told this story.
I used to play golf--a LOT of golf. Other than a couple of charity scrambles, I have not picked up a club in a serious way for three years.
I have used the excuse, "Oh, my job, yada yada, my time constraints, yada yada." That really isn't the whole story.
I first started learning to play golf my senior year of medical school--to relax. I had played a lot of sports in high school, but never golf. As it turned out, I took to it like a duck to water. Although I'm a little wild, I'm strong--there aren't a lot of females out there who can drive the ball 230 yards--and I had good nerve for putting. Within five years, I got my handicap under 15, and my lowest legitimate handicap was 12 (more on the legit part later.) I won a lot of trophies and tourneys and even could qualify for some of the "not ready for prime time" echelons of the state amateur, the USGA public links tourney, and I held two records in two age groups in the Missouri Show-me Games. I was not "great," but I was "good enough to compete at a certain level."
For probably about 15 years or so, almost my every waking moment that wasn't occupied with work was occupied with golf. I played with the crazies at 7 a.m. so I could get my round finished in under four hours. I was obsessed with the physical fitness of walking the course. I read golf magazines, constantly upgraded my equipment, and constantly evaluated which kind of golf balls to use. I went by the driving range after work at least 3 days of the week, played 18 holes 2 times a week, and in the long summer days, played a few holes after work. I had not just one, but TWO holes-in-one.
The trouble began when I got "good enough to play at a certain level."
I suddenly started feeling the pressure to be a little better than I knew I could be--"it just needed a little more work," you know--and I could not live up to it. The end result was I started selling out to myself. My USGA handicap was legitimately at a place that was past the 90th percentile for women. I could play from the longer tee boxes with my male friends and hold my own. My best golf buddy M. was just as obsessed as me, so it seemed ok.
But in that spectrum, I crossed a line where playing golf was no longer relaxing, and I controlled IT, to where it controlled ME and I was becoming more and more edgy and pressured. I was losing my temper on the course and doing things I swore I never would do--tossing clubs, walking off in a huff, dumping "golf friends."
Then came the secret sin.
I started on occasion, after a crappy round, sort of "forgetting" to turn in those rounds, so my handicap stayed low. I had, towards the end, a handicap that wasn't legit, but a "glamour" handicap. I got away with it b/c most golfers hate "sandbaggers"--people who don't turn in their GOOD rounds so they get more strokes when calculating handicaps for competition--and I wasn't winning anyone's money--so no one cared about my glamour handicap. But I knew, and I figured some of my friends knew too, but they didn't mind winning ten bucks because I had an ego problem, so they didn't think anything of it!
But the day that did me in was the last time I played with my friend M. By this time his dementia was obvious, and his golf game had pretty much deteriorated. I went out with the total intent of just "having fun with him" and not worrying about my round.
But the truth came out pretty quick.
Taking him to play by then meant I had to pretty much commandeer everything for him--where his ball was, what club to use, and deal with some of his obsessive behavior. About six holes into it, I just LAUNCHED on him, telling him how this wasn't fun for ME, and HE was the problem here, and all I was doing was running myself ragged taking care of him for something that wasn't fun for me AT ALL. "You don't even CARE about MY game anymore," I yelled.
It was the utter look of sadness that crossed his face that broke my heart, when he replied, "I know this is harder for you than you ever expected. I didn't plan on this happening to me, you know. You don't know how much I appreciate it, even though I know it wears on you."
At that point I seriously broke down and cried.
We finished our outing and things were calmer.
But that night I put the clubs in the garage and have not been that interested in them ever since.
It was my first real understanding I can have toxic obsessions.
One of the things I have constantly had to come to grips with in my own spiritual growth, and find I have to constantly go back to and truly LISTEN to what God is telling me, is for my spiritual growth to remain a passion but not become an obsession. I have not always succeeded there, but what I have found is that spiritual practices such as silence and contemplation and "alone time" help me there, as well as give me time to de-brief in the presence of God those times I have crossed the line and my spiritual growth and relationships became a bit of an obsession.
You see, I don't ever want to have that day where I put my "God clubs" in the garage and walk away. I actually did that once, about 25 years ago, and it took me 25 years to go back in the garage...but God said, "Hey...why don't we buy you some new clubs. I don't think these old clubs will work for you this time around."
This has NOT been perfect. I can get obsessed with the notion that "THIS practice, THIS thing right here, is absolutely, positively what I need to be doing to be closer to God," or "THIS person has the key answer so I need to listen to THIS person and not THAT person," and sometimes it takes me a little while to figure that out, but the most important thing is that I recognize something very valuable:
God does not require me to maintain or live up to a numerical handicap.
God doesn't keep score.
God just wants us to be out on the course with him.
So why am I telling this story?
Many of us became closer to God, or gave church another try, because we needed to overcome something--addiction, a divorce, a death, a change in attitude, any of a whole host of things. It is important not to take with us what we needed to prove before we made this switch.
Folks, that is what the altar is for.
Every week, we who live in the liturgical church world have the opportunity to leave those things on the altar and eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. We have the ability to do better than "trade one obsession for another." Sometimes we cheapen our own God-experience because we are so skilled at trading one obsession for another, so that's all we do. But the Eucharist is so much bigger than that. We can do more than trade our personal obsession for a God-obsession, we can allow ourselves to be healed and be in relationship with God, and listen and be instructed for a life that is so much more than an obsession-swap. Better yet, we can fail on occasion and start all over, with no old handicap index to weigh us down like the world can do. What's not to like?
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
“He who obeys his inclination is like an idolater. “There shall be no strange gods in thee” (Psalm 81:10) means, Make not the stranger in you your ruler!”
- Yannai (Jerusalem Talmud: Nedarim 9.1)
“Torah, prayer and the contemplation of death will help you in your struggle against the Evil Inclination.”
- Simeon ben Lakish (Talmud: Berakot 5a)
I was intrigued by a program put together by one of my former medical student's synagogue as a discussion topic prior to the High Holy Days. The discussion was based on an old episode of Star Trek. It couldn't be embedded, but you can watch it here.
Tamudic wisdom talks about how each person lives a delicate balance between the Yetzer Harah (the evil inclination that lives in each of us) and the Yetzer Hatov (the good inclination that lives in each of us.)
This episode of Star Trek, "The Enemy Within," really emphasizes this interplay. Short version of the episode:
In a transporter malfunction, Capt. Kirk becomes "two Kirks"--a good one and a wicked one. The bad one gets into a lot of trouble. But we discover two interesting surprises. The first is that the "good Kirk" finds himself unable to totally behave as the captain of the Enterprise ought to behave--it is actually the "bad Kirk" who has many of the qualities that temper Kirk's ability to command a ship. The other is that both Kirks are becoming weaker disconnected from each other. Ultimately, Scotty has to figure out some fancy transporter manipulation to "put the Kirks back together."
But what really struck me in this episode, despite the fact I probably have seen it a hundred times and I figured there was "nothing new to see" was that it is the "good Kirk" that tells the "bad Kirk," "Don't be afraid," as they are trying to figure out how to put the two Kirks back into one. When both the Kirks go back into the transporter to be re-united, it is the "good Kirk" who is holding up the "bad Kirk," who, by now, is too weak to stand on his own.
Don't be afraid.
How many times in the Bible do we see that the first thing out of an angel's mouth, when they appear to humans, is "don't be afraid?"
But as I watched this episode with a spiritual eye, a few things popped into my head.
One is that the saint in us needs the sinner in us to bear the things that are not easy to bear--to shoulder responsibility, to stand in the gap, to go against the grain. If we were only made of saint stuff, we would not be stubborn enough to endure.
The other is that it is actually the sinner in us that actually feels fear, not the saint. It was "good Kirk" who had to tell "bad Kirk," "Don't be afraid."
Spock, of course, finds this all "fascinating."
It made me think about how we so often, when we have done wrong, and are asking forgiveness of our sins, have a tendency to want that forgiveness to be manifested in the removal of our "bad half." We want to be more Yetzer HaTov and less Yetzer Harah. Yet if we got our wish, we might not be capable of what our Yetzer HaTov desires.
We'd be better off asking simply for our two halves to be in harmony with each other.
Without our Yetzer Harahs, how would our Yetzer HaTovs know what was right and act upon it? Without our Yezher HaTovs, we would simply be at the mercy of all our selfish desires.
It really twists things up, doesn't it?
One without the other weakens us and makes us less whole.
I thought about all those times in my life that I basically asked God to erase my selfishness, my coveting, my stiff-necked-ness. It was a mistake. A person can't repent, can't turn from evil and towards good, unless we have within us what we need to turn FROM. Otherwise, there's no reference point.
It's interesting that when we go back to the Genesis Adam/Eve story, when Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it says "her eyes were opened." Open and receptive to seeing both saints and sinners. It was a necessary skill.
How could we ever know the goodness of God if we knew nothing about evil--really knew? Yet our knowledge of evil is what helps us see what's truly good.
I also thought about how those fears and uncertainties creep up on our lives, and we don't even consider for a minute that our fear is not the good in us feeling threatened--it's the bad in us that feels threatened. Our personal "good" doesn't fight "bad" but instead learns to coexist. When properly controlled, the "evil" in us is useful in the activation of the "good in us."
We innately desire "wholeness," I believe, but that happens only if we can sit with all the bad parts of us and make peace with both our halves. To fully be free of fear, as one of God's people, walking in his Light--it means we need to understand it is the "bad half" of us that is afraid, and it is up for our "good halves" to be comfortable enough with our own dark side to hold him or her to ourselves and agree that both halves of us, are, indeed one.
St. Augustine put it another way--"Hope has two daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be."
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--A Collect for Grace, p. 100, Book of Common Prayer
Have you ever notice that in those moments we have made it through one of the storms or difficulties of life, that nothing quite feels as good as that moment that things "are not like they used to be?" One of the things I always notice in these episodes is that I simply feel "safer." Oh, not like it's always something that our life literally is in physical danger (although I have had a few of those.) Just that the world feels more comfortable, less dark, less ominous. There's far less mis-trustfulness or looking over one's shoulder.
I am working on another post to tag-team this one but what I am discovering is one of the keys in "how we get hurt" emotionally is that no matter how impure the world is, no matter how awful the slings and arrows in a person's life wound them, there is still this tiny glimmer of innocence in everyone. It's funny--the worldly and savvy parts of us are what keep us from mental annihilation--otherwise that innocence would be destroyed--but it is that innocent part of us that gives us hope, and the courage to "try again."
Almost always, when people have been in stress or crisis, and the crisis is over or the stress has abated, it's almost like that innocence in us can come out and play again. It's why I get the line in our Evening Prayer service about "shield the joyous." It's because joy is raw innocence, and to be joyful exposes us. To truly be joyful requires the safe circle of a protective environment.
I used to think this prayer was overly dramatic when I went to morning prayer--"Safety? I'm not unsafe. Jeez." But as time goes on, I realize that the best parts of our relationships with God not only require "safe space" but demand it. It's why spiritual practices are important, because these practices create "safe space" in us, in the middle of a world where we can't even begin to imagine the subtlety of what can prevent our innocence from emerging and hearing and interacting with God.
How can each of us widen the "safe space" in our relationship with God? What spiritual practice can help with that? Good questions!
I pinched this one from Grandmere Mimi's blog the other day (they are from her post about a visit to Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian) because I loved the story:
The Apprentice Pillar
The "Apprentice Pillar", or "Prentice Pillar", gets its name from an 18th century legend involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column, without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason traveled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column anyway. In a fit of jealous anger the mason took up his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. As punishment for his crime, the master mason's face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice's pillar.
That story really got me to thinking...
You know, from Cain and Abel onward, the Bible is full of stories of jealousy, and bad outcomes related to it, all the way from "Aleph to Zed" as my friend M. used to say. I could almost make an argument that Moses could have come down the mountain with one commandment--"Do not covet"--and the other nine commandments would have taken care of themselves. We'd worship God more fully if we didn't think we had to compete for his favor. We'd honor our parents better if we weren't jealous of siblings or other relatives. It certainly keeps the murder rate down.
But something I have learned in 20 years of teaching medical students and residents comes through loud and clear on this one--the reason I have been able to STAND teaching medical students and residents for 20 years is because I accepted a long time ago this one fact--if they turn out smarter and do better than me, I've done my job right.
If I had needed to invest time winning the battle of wits all these years, I would have probably knocked one in the head with a stonecarver's mallet too--or in my case, run one of my big specimen-carving knives through them.
Now, if the stone mason in this story had just thought about it, instead of being jealous of this young fellow's talents, he should have been flattered that this guy did "his" style of work as good as him, so his legacy and style and influence would have lived on another generation. I mean, really, it's better than being fecund. Say a person had five kids. There's no guarantee that those five kids are even going into your line of work. But get five apprentices, and there will more than likely be five stone masons out there who learned from you. Those five stone masons will train apprentices, and on and on it goes. Sure, a little less of "you" lives in each successive generation, but those "molecules" are still there.
In my case, all those medical students and residents I've taught or trained go into many different fields--not just pathology--and it widens my influence. When I look at my Facebook page, I have been amazed at how many of them seem to remain on my friend list after graduation. When I get a phone call or e-mail from a former student or resident asking "my advice"--whether it's pathology or life--I am humbled. I really don't have anything to teach those people any more. They are all grown up and in practice and they are stand-alone doctors in their own right. But for some reason, that bond of the teacher and the student are still there.
If I were jealous about this stuff, none of it would have happened.
I was once on the short end of jealousy in a teacher-student relationship. I had a situation once, where, I believe, this person targeted me as a person with talent--one who "got it"--one who understood his way of seeing it in a way most students didn't. But two things happened.
The first was, he was right about those gifts and talents--and I learned in leaps and bounds and it became so apparent to him, I believe, that this became threatening to him. He was in a period in his life where his talents in this realm were, well, for lack of a better term...he was becoming impotent. What would take him several days to do, and stress over, and obsess over, I was doing like rolling off a log, and begging for more. He was turning on the tap of his imagination and getting a trickle, and in the distance he heard the rushing torrent of my faucet that couldn't be shut off.
The other was that I could not help that I was a "challenging" sort of personality. It's no secret, I challenge authority. The best teachers in my life use that challenge to get me to channel myself in better directions. But they have to be strong enough people to tell me where to get off, and not be afraid of making me mad. Yes, I get mad--but if I want the learning, I humble up and eat crow pretty quickly. Everything I have learned about humility, frankly, that "sticks," requires that I get shoved on my butt and stare a the dirt for a short bit.
So in the end, he came to resent me--deeply--and blamed me for his failings and his distress. The response of this resentment was to cut me off from the learning experiences, and, as I was taught to go to him for the learning--to not trust others--it had the effect of cutting off a cocaine addict. I became needy and desperate and codependent to get my "fix." Eventually it all blew up, and that was the end. It has never repaired itself.
There are days I would like that to be repaired, but it would have to come "from the top down." I was the lower player in that scenario. Any attempt on my part would simply be another codependent act. I reconciled myself a long time ago that "being happy as I am now" is the only reconciliation I can get in that for now.
As with a lot of parallels in real life, so it goes with the kingdom of God and God's kingdom on earth.
Any given parish has amazing talent living right within it. Even small ones.
What would it be like if an entire parish committed itself to the development of each other's talents, and stopped worrying about "turf" and actually committed ourselves to the notion that the person sitting next to you in the pew might outstrip your ability to contribute to the work of God, and that was just fine?
For that matter, what if one Sunday we all didn't sit in "our" pew? What if we all sat somewhere other than where we normally sit? (I am very guilty of that one.) How would the church look different if we simply sat and participated from a different spot?
What happens to us--how are we changed--if we work from the notion every other person in our parish might outdo us in SOMETHING in the parish--and it's all ok?
Parishes don't usually have such a tangible reminder of the way "jealousy kills" like the Apprentice Pillar, but it does have empty pews that might be the result of coveting and jealousy. How could they be filled with a change in attitude? How much would we change and grow by accepting someone might learn from us in our various tasks in the church and outdo us? What a wonderful miracle that might be...
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
This morning's Gospel story in the Daily Office is a pretty good reminder about "truth-telling" when there is an elephant in the room--namely, the minute a person tells an uncomfortable truth, it will pretty much be a given that there will be attempts to discredit the witness--sometimes even by people who care about that person.
Look at our story today. Earlier in John 9, Jesus has just healed a man blind from birth by putting mud on his eyes. The Pharisees are dealing with the uncomfortable truth that Jesus is running around healing people in the name of the same God they worship. They are wondering, "Why don't WE have that kind of power?" They resort to the oldest courtroom trick in the book--discredit the witness.
"He kind of LOOKS like the blind beggar...are we SURE he's the blind beggar?"
"Maybe he's not blind at all and we're being scammed. Let's drag his parents in."
"Let's get him to change his story under threat of being thrown out of the temple."
It's the stuff cop movies are made of.
Even his own parents are afraid of that "being thrown out of the temple" part. They give a rather circuitous answer to the high priests. "Hey, look...all we are saying is this guy has been blind since he was born. We're his parents, we ought to know. Why would we lie to you about that? As for how he got healed, uh...you'll just have to ask him yourself. I'm telling you we don't know anything else."
They weren't going to risk being thrown out of the temple. They sort of gave up their son in that "Son, you're on your own, there...we're not risking our reputation in the community," sort of way.
In those days, being born with a disability carried with it a mindset of "Someone must have sinned really badly in your family for this to have happened to you." So the Pharisees have one point right off the bat in discrediting the man's witness. It's ultimately what they resort to, when the man does not relent and simply repeats over and over that Jesus healed him. They try to get him to lessen Jesus' role in this. They try to reason him into a different point of view. But when these things don't work, they throw up their hands and say, "Get out of my temple, you worthless piece of crap! Who do you think you are, born with all those sins, telling US what to do? Shoo! Go away!"
Unfortunately, that is what happens when someone tells an uncomfortable or an inconvenient truth too much of the time. Some folks have spent the better part of a decade discrediting Al Gore for even starting the ball rolling on discussions of global warming. Granted, we can fight about the details, but the fact is he raised some points that were uncomfortable to deal with...and now it is no longer about those points, but somehow it morphed into Tipper and his failed marriage. Some of the voices in the state of Louisiana have been discredited when they say they have been beaten down by the BP oil spill so close to the aftermath of Katrina. ("They're a bunch of uneducated Cajuns and African-Americans and don't want to work--what do they know? If they don't like it they can leave and go get a job.") Women who have been raped are put on the stand and cross-examined about how seductively they were dressed. Abused spouses have to run the gauntlet of discrediting statements the abuser might make to "their" friends about how crazy or controlling or difficult the abused spouse is.
But the fact remains--tell an uncomfortable truth and there will be an attempt for the person to be discredited over the facts.
This is not easy when a person is the "truth-teller." All truth, really, is a combination of facts and our own projection of the facts as we see the situation. Pontius Pilate wasn't just being evasive when he asked "What is truth?" at Jesus' trial. He was just stating a fact. Truth is always tempered (and hampered, to some degree) by perception. It rarely is free of judgment.
I spend most weekdays of my life looking down a microscope and assigning diagnostic names to pieces of tissue. I try to tell the truth as best as I see it. I might look at a needle biopsy of a lung and say, "This is moderately differentiated adenocarcinoma." But if the person does not want to hear he has lung cancer, he might blurt out, "I want a second opinion." The implication, of course, is that a pathologist in Kirksville, MO is too stupid to know if someone has lung cancer. The hope is "somebody screwed up that I can blame, and maybe I can even get a little money out of THEIR screwups." Maybe the container was labeled wrong. Maybe that pathologist is just stupid.
Oh, don't get me wrong. People in my line of work make mistakes. I've made a few myself--mercifully not any big ones that had consequences that I know of--and there could well be ones I don't know about--and honestly, if that were the case, I would just have to accept my fallibility and get on with my life, whatever "getting on with my life" meant.
But the vast majority of the time, when that scenario happens, I step away from it and remind myself that someone out there is simply afraid, because they have been told they have cancer. I have learned not to fear the angry person who comes into my office with the accusatory tone of voice and demands I send their biopsy elsewhere to "doctors who know what they're doing, not these quacks in this one-horse town."
I've also learned not to take personally the angry cross-examining of specialist doctors from out of town who want to scapegoat me for a patient not getting the diagnosis they could work with, but rather the more dismal one. I recently had to endure the dressing down by a specialty doctor who was angry at me because I am not clairvoyant, and would not accept the responsibility for "not knowing something" when I was not TOLD anything TO know about the details of what was to happen with the patient's treatment.
I find it interesting how people sometimes need to say to another, "You're wrong," to feel better about themselves, or to hide the fact they might have dropped the ball a little, too.
BUT--for every time I get mad that someone is trying to discredit me, I have to step back and say, "...and who have I discredited to make myself feel better?" We are not immune. We are very good at seeing that one in others but not ourselves.
Maybe we should just be more like the blind man and rejoice in the truth of being healed.
Of those surveyed:
• More than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) at some time in their adult lives;
• 92% of these sexual advances had been made in secret, not in open dating relationships; and
• 67% of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
• In the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average of 7 women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.
• Of the entire sample, 8% report having known about CSM occurring in a congregation they have attended. Therefore, in the average American congregation of 400 congregants, there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced CSM in their community of faith.
--From the Baylor University study on sexual exploitation and abuse by clergy
The recent events in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania with Bishop Bennison's knowledge of abuse perpetrated by his brother, have brought up something that doesn't seem to be, in my mind, told enough. It is illustrated in the facts from the Baylor University survey above.
Eight percent of people in a given congregation have KNOWN that clergy sexual abuse was going on in their parish.
Eight percent. Yes, it's a minority, but it is a noticeable one.
Unfortunately, more often than not, they know and don't talk.
The magnitude of this has just hit home recently for me.
I have been visiting at length with a friend of mine who, I believe, has been sexually exploited by a clergy member in the Episcopal Church in another diocese. What has been rather dismaying to her has been as she has been putting out "feelers" to figure out how to most appropriately discuss and deal with this, it has become apparent in the inquiries that people "guessed who it was"--which means they KNEW this person was walking a little on the shady side.
It's the church's version of "Don't ask, don't tell."
Here's my gut reaction on this. We, as adults, tend to (wrongly) assume consenting adults are...well...consenting adults. But we forget in the clergy-parishioner relationship, that we often give free passes to the collared on things we would have thrown a boundary down so fast on the uncollared, it would make your head swim.
I know. I've done this. Because that person has a shamanic presence in our community of worship, we might say "okay," to something that we would tell a mere mortal "Hell no!" or unleash a string of F-bombs, because we respect that he or she is the leader of our spiritual community and that is a burden some days...or to say "no" gets us in trouble with God or something. We can always say that saying "no" is not Christ-like.
The other thing we tend to forget is the methodology by which needy clergy "hook" people, even when they are not the objects of the sexual exploitation.
These are people who know our worst fears sometimes. These are people to whom we've often confided difficult parts of our past. Abusers hold their targets by means of the "special relationship." I mean, who wouldn't want to be the one that the pastor or priest says "held the congregation together," or "saved the parish?" Who doesn't like to be "understood" in a psychologically slightly more intimate than normal way? To have interactions that transcend words and language in pursuit of being more godly and Spirit-filled?
To confront clergy about their bad behavior puts the confronter at risk for losing the "special relationship." Over time, one can believe that it is the "special relationship" that makes him or her close to God...not the Gospel message the person is trying to impart. The risk could even be that the parish might be fed "black pearls" about the non-compliant parishioner...that he/she is "difficult," "mentally ill," or "unstable." Their worship and faith life is at risk. In our church, sometimes there are several miles between Episcopal churches. Where else would many of us go, if it were us who knew the secrets?
But make no mistake--when the pastor runs off with the church secretary, the books, and all the fried chicken, there is always a little nucleus of people who had either "known all about it," or "figured it out."
These abusive clergy get away from it because, not only do they target their next romantic relationship, they cultivate a network of henchmen and pit bulls to manipulate the parish to suit their needs, or to make other parishioners keep their distance by teaching the henchmen and pit bulls not to trust the others.
The other thing that is becoming tricky in the Internet era is the geographical boundaries. For argument's sake, let's just say I am in the diocese of Missouri and I am being harassed by someone in another diocese. Whose rules apply? Or DO they even apply if one is not a member at that person's home parish?
I would add in this day and age, the clergy presence of priests and deacons easily now transcends the Internet. But each diocese has its own policy on sexual exploitation. It creates a sticky situation. There might be subtle differences in one diocese but not another. There might be slight differences of opinion of what "a pastoral relationship" might be as it relates tothe Internet and social networking sites. We may still have territory yet to explore and further define, there.
But more importantly, how do we teach people that that eight percent "curtain of silence" is not acceptable? That "consenting adults" are still in a power differential with the clergy on the top end of the differential? That, no, everyone doesn't "know" and that it is safe to come in from the cold with such information? Unfortunately, as the Bennison case underscores, there are reasons out there that "the sheep still don't feel safe." But not pointing out where the wolves are is not the answer, either.