Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Excuse Number Nine

Last week’s column on Excuse Number Ten for missing worship, “God will understand” sparked some interesting comment--and I do welcome those responses.  They hone my thinking about this human tendency to place the responsibility for both major and minor decisions squarely on the shoulders of others. I know how often I become what I call “othered.”  That’s not “bothered,” by the way.  ”Othered” is the act of letting the actions of others dictate my own actions.  I set aside personal responsibility for them.

So this week, I am looking at one of the most “othered” of the reasons not to attend worship gatherings.  Excuse Number Nine:  “Someone at the place of worship hurt my feelings and never apologized properly.”  

I do not deny hurt feelings.  We do hurt one another.  All the time.  Much of the pain we live with was probably unintentionally inflicted.  Nonetheless, there are clearly times when major disagreement, mispoken  or unspoken words, and unresolved conflict rip relational fabric to shreds.  Mending seems impossible.  Furthermore, apologies themselves may fan the flames.  “I’m sorry you took offense at that.  I apologize,” is possibly the worst apology ever spoken, but I hear it often.  The speaker takes no responsibility for any possible wrongness of his or her actions or words. The recipient is fully to blame.  

Here’s a list I’ve made of other really bad apologies I’ve heard over the years:
  • "I'm sorry you misunderstood me.  I apologize."
  • "Did I do something I need to apologize for?  If so, please tell me."
  • "I'm sorry your feelings are hurt.  I hope you will forgive me."
  • "I sure didn't mean to do something that would make you hurt.  I'm sorry."
  • "Please forgive me in advance for what I'm about to say."
  • "I'm sorry I lost my temper/broke the ____ (you fill in the blank)/hit you.  But if you had only listened to me in the first place, it never would have happened."
  • "I'm sorry I wrecked the car.  But you knew how upset/drunk/drugged I was.  You should never have let me drive."

Do you see the “othering” in all these apologies?  It’s pretty easy to recognize--everything is the other person’s fault.

When these types of conversations take place, healing becomes challenging.  When these conversations take place within the covenant community of a corporate place of worship, the hurt compounds.  We really do have higher expectations of those who identify as part of a worshipping community, and we should.  So the anguish goes deeper here than in other places.

What now?  One option: simply separate and drop out.  We use the immaturity of others as an excuse, feed our anger and bitterness, and refuse to gather with others at worship with self-righteous justification.  “If they were better people, I’d be there.”

Another option:  Ask this question: “I wonder how many people I’ve hurt and don’t even know about?” How many “othered” apologies have I offered?”  

Then there is the vital question:  “How much grace do I want to receive?”  Once that is answered, we stare at the corresponding question, “How much grace do I want others to receive?”

Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts) as we forgive the trespasses (sins, debts) of others.”  These words form the centerpiece of healthy covenant worship life:  the mutual giving and receiving of forgiveness.  It is the hardest thing anyone ever does.  By offering forgiveness, we forever set down the possibility of vengeance.  

But by offering forgiveness, something else happens.  Chains fall off, souls and often bodies are healed, relationships are restored, and the kingdom of heaven advances.  What will you do with your hurts? Feed them or free them?  Please know this:  I don’t say this is easy.  I do say the act of forgiving others is more God-like than any other human action.  It’s time to set this things down and enter again into holy connection.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reason Number Ten

As I work my way through my list of excuses people give for choosing not to give regular time for the care and nurture of their souls in a corporate gathering, I have to look at myself.  I have used Excuse Number Ten, “God will understand” multiple times as a justification for doing something I know I shouldn’t--or for not doing something I know I should.

God will understand.  When I look at that statement just by itself, I become aware of my hubris--how easily I decide for God!  What a quick trip for me into the mind of the Holy and Almighty One where I, limited as I am, can say with such certainty, “this is no big deal to God.”

I have enough insight into my own soul to know that when I start using words like that, I’m about to make a choice that is invariably the least helpful of the possibilities in front of me.

I’ll try a few on for size here:  

  • God will understand if I do not have active compassion for those on the margins (because someone else will?).
  • God will understand if I systematically bully or mistreat others (because maybe they don’t have real feelings like I do--so God made them a little less important than I am?).
  • God will understand if I violate my own conscience to a point where that violation has become so habitual that I can no longer hear that quiet voice (because God really is a heavenly-placed magician who will spread pixie dust over the devastation I offer to myself and others so it will all mysteriously turn out just fine).
  • God will understand if I skate my way through life, cheating and lying (because I’m really just human, after all, and not much can be expected of me, especially the hard work of becoming conformed to the image of the Holy One).
  • God will understand if I sleep in on yet another day of worship (because, after all, I do deserve that day of rest after working so hard all week!)

It gets kind of sick, doesn’t it?  I can excuse anything I want to do with those words, “God will understand.”  I can dismiss the failure to take up any responsibility with those same words.  

Even so, I also find a profound truth in the phrase, “God will understand.”  It touches upon the whole concept of grace, but in a way that leaves the idea empty.  Grace:  the wondrous and mysterious action of God that intentionally invites all us creatures into what I call a state of forgiven intimacy--both with the Holy One and with each other.  By flippantly dismissing this invitation as “God will understand,” we land in the quagmire of what is often called cheap grace. The invitation costs everything.  Our reception of it as “God understands my laziness and is happy with my excuses” tramples this invitation and heaves it into the trash bin.

Understanding and communicating the nature of grace may be the impossible quest.  Grace really is God’s free gift to us.  That gift is the invitation to return joyfully to the heart of God, with complete forgiveness offered.  But too often we think this gift can be simply set aside until it becomes more convenient to receive it.  In other words, we don’t value it, don’t savor it, and don’t take the time to respond with thankfulness.

Participation in worship does not earn one’s way into heaven.  It does prepare us to recognize what Jesus often taught: the kingdom of heaven is all about us.  Worship trains our souls to be more receptive to that joyous grace.  Worship teaches us to live out the image of God stamped upon us as we learn to forgive those around us.  More about this next week, as I explore excuse number nine, “Someone (or several someones) at the church hurt me and never apologized.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reason Number Eleven

Come into this scene with me: a loved one has died and the family wants a clergy person to guide them through the really tough time of loss and grief. We clergy who spend much of our life at the crossroads of death and life are often able to bring not only some comfort, but helpful perspective at these times. 

When the person who had died is unknown to me, I seek to learn the history and find the patterns of the life lived. I probe for the good and funny memories; I visualize a mental picture of this one whose voice will not be heard again, whose unique mannerisms are now a thing in the past, and whose secrets are gone. 

On occasion, somewhere along the line, this statement pops up, "He (or she) was a wonderful person, but not a church-goer because he/she didn't like church people much." And so I give you Excuse Number 11 of 15 I've heard for not attending worship: disliking the people who do choose to worship together.

One possible reaction to that statement: "I wonder if that person will find heaven to a be kind of hell then, because it will probably be pretty well populated with those very ones she/he disliked and avoided during this physical life." But that is a flippant response for a serious situation. 

First, what has happened that gave church people such a bad reputation? I wrote some about that earlier and will expand on it later but now I'm also pondering a troubling second issue: the hopelessness of the situation. The power of decision-making for a vital life experience has been placed in the hands of others. As a result, the individual has lost much of his or her humanity.

Hang with me for a minute on this while I sort out that last statement. By refusing the necessary action of soul and moral development found in the regular discipline of God-centered worship and instruction, a human will never reach his or her full potential. This loss is a loss for all of humanity. The loss takes place when "church people" are so disliked because . . . and here I get stuck. Whoever these church people are, and there must be many of them, they have been handed the power of life and death in ways they never wanted. Instead, they suddenly responsible for what are actually individual decisions for people they do not know.

I'm having trouble getting this down on paper, so let me try again. I won't do what is good and holy and necessary and joyful for me to do because . . . I don't like someone else, so it is really their fault because I don't find them likable. 

I'm taking a deep breath here--those who heard my message last Sunday know what I'm taking about--that sign of exasperation. 

What does liking someone else have to do with this anyway? Gathering with people we may or may not like in order to experience something far beyond those petty likes and dislikes brings vibrant life to expanded souls. Consider what it means, for example, to receive the sacrament from the hands of someone whom you don't care for--and who might not find you their favorite person either. This transcendent moment shows what the love of God is all about--that reconciling love that invites us to be more human . . . not less human. More in the image of God, not less, not shut down, not trapped by human dislikes that bind us in unforgiving chains of blame.

By willingly and with open hearts entering the presence of those for whom we hold some antipathy, we discover what Jesus meant when he said he came to set the captive free. Fetters are loosed, we leap with light spirits, and give space for true Light to enter.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Reason Number Twelve

Today, I explore excuse Number Twelve of fifteen for staying away from a worshipping community:  "They all teach and believe different things.  How do I know which one is right?" 

Let's consider the logic to the statement.  We see different ways to practice medicine, educate children, repair cars, cook chicken, clean a house, run a business, grow a garden, program a computer, cut hair, have a satisfying marriage.  Multiple opinions do not mean that we quit seeking medical help or sending children to school or finding better ways to cook a chicken or anything else.  We don't really expect people to agree in these areas.  Look at national (or local) politics.  Disagreement is real, and people are passionate about those disagreements.  Nonetheless, most of us still live and work within our political system. We've not headed off to some isolated island to live a primitive, non-political life, should such a thing even exist.

When it comes to theology--and the word theology simply means "words about God"--there is no way for one human organization to have a complete handle on that kind of truth, any more than one school of medicine has absolutely the last answer to any given disease.  We live in a fantastically complex world.  We are surrounded by mysteries in the tiniest particles and in the utter vastness of space, galaxies, universes.

To come together to worship God offers time to explore that vastness and those mysteries. We bathe ourselves in contemplation of such greatness.  Worship also lets us recognize just how little we really know and how small we are.  Many say they acknowledge the hugeness of this universe.  But most of us really think the universe is our own life, our wants and needs, our hungers, thirsts, appetites, desires.  So, often without thinking, we seek a theology that lets us stay the center of the universe.  Since everyone inhabits a different universe because of different life experiences, personality types, family and genetic influences, cultures, races, sexuality and gender, our theologies also differ.

I used to think that I could get a handle on some absolute objective truth out there.  I would be the one to really, truly understand God and what God wants for you and for me.  While I still think there is absolute truth, holiness, love, mercy and justice--because I think this is the nature of God--I have learned that all of my efforts to fully understand it and wrap my mind around it will inevitably be both limited and prejudicial.  

That does not make my seeking after God futile; it does help keep me humble in the midst of that search.  

So, to expect that all church gatherings would teach the same thing is to also say, "I can fully control God."  It's called "God in a box" and we stay the center of the universe. The differences make the exploration of the Holy One far more fascinating and adventurous.  I say this with much confidence: no one, and no religious institution has a perfect handle on the nature and purposes of God.  Any group that says, "us, and us only," has placed God in a very tight, humanly constructed box and has thus become God.  

Why not celebrate the different theologies?  Why not recognize that such differences give us hope?  Why not see how to develop spiritually with different modes of worship?  Look at the world--only a mind of infinite creativity could bring this into existence.  Different churches, different theologies--could it be that they reflect the Mind of the Maker?  Could it be that this is not such a bad thing?  I personally do not embrace all theologies.  But they can all teach me something. Perhaps the same would be true for you.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Excuse Number Thirteen

The excuses continue. Why do people neglect caring for their own soul by avoiding regular gatherings, which I call church? Here is excuse number thirteen of the fifteen I've heard over the years: "The church has done terrible things to people."

To this I say, "Yes, it has." I myself have been a vocal critic of the harm done by many religious groups. It saddens me to think about it and I see no sense in whitewashing this. In the name of religion, people have been tortured and murdered, children abused, governments toppled, buildings burned, nations ruined, people systematically robbed, scientific advancement hampered, while people with honest questions and private doubts have been ridiculed and excluded. It breaks my heart.

If this were all the church has done, then it should be wiped from existence immediately. If this were the only accomplishments of the church, the church has proved itself unholy, destructive and evil beyond redemptive hope.

Unfortunately, we humans seem to be hard wired to remember the negative, and to ignore the positive. This is why news stories only tell us about the horrific and sad news of the day. Newscasters don't mention the millions of people who weren't in a fiery crash or murdered by an angry ex-spouse.

The same psychological reasoning deploys with the horrors committed in the name of religion. There is little news value in mentioning the millions of people who routinely, and with an amazing amount of joy, give themselves away in the name of God to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. We have silenced the Good News and refuse stories of people who choose to live by the fruits of the spirit, giving of themselves in every way imaginable.

The scandals make the news--and rightly in my opinion. Evil needs to be exposed. But for every unscrupulous person in the pulpit, for every church bureaucrat who covers up evil for the sake of career advancement, for every religious thief who keeps sticky hands in the pockets of trusting people, there are millions who have heard the words of redemptive love and have set out to live faithfully, seeking peace, justice and holiness.

When we use this excuse, "The church has done terrible things to people" to separate ourselves from a worshiping community, we help perpetuate the evil. When righteous people will not gather together to form strong bonds of worship and service, then . . . evil remains unchecked.

Look at it this way: in nearly every case of religious abuse, it stems from unchecked and unaccountable power. The charismatic cult leader who draws others and then strips them of independent thinking in the name of some "higher power" is actually gaining power for him or her self. Every abuse situation involves a powerful person violating some vulnerable person, and then demanding secrecy or else destruction will rain on them or their loves ones.

Clearly, we must use discernment when entering into a worshiping community. Here are important questions: How much secrecy does the religious organization demand of its adherents? Is there a tight and often undisclosed path to the seats of power where only a few hold ultimate decision-making rights? Can the "rank and file" question decisions without fear of retribution? What kind of protection is offered the most vulnerable, particularly children and those with special needs? What accountability structures have been deployed? How open are records, particularly financial records? Keep in mind that in any organization or family, the greater the secrets, the more unhealthy and cult-like the environment. That kind of atmosphere sets the stage for abuse and evil to flourish.

The church has done insurmountable good. The world would be infinitely poorer, meaner, and unhealthier without it. But any organization with an unchecked power center will ultimately self destruct. Find an open worshiping community and offer yourself--there is joy unbounded to be experienced there.