thanksgiving forgiving

One of the aspects of my living…my being with which I most have wrestled and do wrestle is forgiveness. For reasons, at least those of which I am conscious – harkening back to formative years’ absences of acknowledgment and acceptance from those who mattered most; those lacks imparting wounds of the soul hard to heal – I have a heartfelt sensitivity to and an elephantine memory for slights and a spirit-deep capacity to bear a grudge. Interestingly to me, as I’ve aged (grown?), I find that I tend to harbor animus more, most against those who have harmed, rather than myself, those near and dear to me.

(Here, there is an inherent irony and an unpleasant truth. The loved one for whom I carry the blazing torch of retribution to right the wrongs committed against her/him may not – usually doesn’t – embody by character or embrace by choice a vengeful disposition. Hence, I, in wielding, without having been asked, the axe of reprisal for one who would not, am forced to face afresh the resident reality of mine own anger.)

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving Day, I stood face to face with one who, in my view, brought grave hurt to a dearest loved one and against whom I, through the nurturance, in my mental rehearsal of the rota of wrongs, had stoked the fire of my anger. In the instant of our meeting, after weeks, months since last sight, I noticed something different. An aging. A weakness of flesh. A brittleness of mind. A weariness of spirit. Equally instantly, I felt soul-searing sorrow and sympathy. Enough to do what I, by virtue of my faith in the One Who hath forgiven me, ought to have done weeks, months before. Forgive.

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I’m sorry…

No one arrives at any place or state of being of good or ill without the help or hurt of countless – some sometimes known, perhaps most oft unseen – hearts and hands. This is one of the functional lenses and operational axioms through which I view and interpret life in this world, particularly human behaviors or misbehaviors.

In my own experience, I was raised in a household of loving parents who, I believe, given their – in my mother’s case, strict and in my father’s, unsettled – upbringings, in their zeal that I be formed and shaped to be an ethically responsible person tended to be incessant in their criticism and intermittent in affirmation and acceptance; all with a decidedly Christian moral overlay. Though they did not succeed in bridling what they duly observed was my rambunctious spirit, perhaps in a manner they did not intend, they nurtured my skepticism, verily, my uncertainty about the intentions of others, especially those nearest and dearest. Hence, I travelled the course of adolescence and arrived at adulthood with a long practiced and perfected guardedness. Though I was often outwardly gregarious, I maintained a private inner world of reserve; one of the less than commendable manifestations of which was (not an inability, but rather) a lethargy about admitting fault. To acknowledge wrongdoing was to expose myself to more censure; the daily dosages I received in my household being more than enough.

I share this, yes, to confess that it took a long time before I developed the ability and willingness to employ frequently those two sacred words essential to all human relating: I’m sorry. (Pontheolla has been and continues to be my finest, fairest teacher. O’er the course of more than 30 years, she, with muscular, matchless patience, has taught me the mutual benefit of saying, “I’m sorry,” and then, in response to her probing, searing question, “For what?”, to dig deeper, exposing more of myself, indeed, my self to profess with naked honesty my wrong; which is to say, more than my acknowledgement that she was hurt by whatever I did or said or didn’t do or say.)

This comes to my mind and heart as I reflect on the latest episode of President Donald Trump’s seeming inability and demonstrable unwillingness to say, “I’m sorry.” His words of condolence proved less than consoling for Mrs. Myeshia Johnson on the occasion of the death of her husband, Sergeant La David Johnson. Notwithstanding the public and unpleasant contretemps between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Johnson and her supporters, it seems to me that Mr. Trump, recognizing that his intention did not satisfy Mrs. Johnson’s expectation (as always is the risk in every human interaction), would be fairly and faithfully served to say, “I’m sorry.” That he has not (cannot?), I, reviewing my own history, sympathetically am led to wonder. Where and how in his nurturance was he hurt making the art of apology beyond his capacity and desire?

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

the practice of peace

Note: On this 16th anniversary of 9/11, I post the text, in the main, of the sermon, referencing, in the end, John 14.25-29, that I preached at A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, September 16, 2001.

I apologize for the length. However, in the course of the days between Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and that following Sunday, there was much on my mind and heart and in my soul and spirit that took shape in many words.

This morning, as I reread and reflected on what I wrote and preached on that day, I discern that much of what I thought and felt and said then about the quest for peace through the active labor of reaching across barriers not only remains true for me, but is at the heart of my life’s calling as a human and as a Christian.

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September 11. Ninth month. Eleventh day.  9-1-1. Emergency. One need not put stock in numerology, the science or pseudo-science of finding sense in or of making sense of numbers, to see a sickening coincidence.

September 11. The day of a massive, coordinated, sophisticated terrorist assault. Targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A towering New York City skyline and that ultra-familiar pentagonal shape, both boldly distinctive and unmistakable, in an instant, tragically transformed.

September 11. An assault that targeted, more greatly still, before and beyond buildings, human lives. Thousands killed and injured. Families and communities torn asunder.

September 11. An assault long predicted, long prophesied by military and civil intelligence communities, ethnic fundamentalists and religious zealots the world o’er, homegrown groups of disaffected extremists and insurrectionists. A prediction, a prophecy now terribly fulfilled…

But who could have foreseen its form? Nothing – not the murderous bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the World Trade Center eight years ago, the Oklahoma City federal building, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole[1] – could have prepared us. Hijacked passenger planes pointed as assassin’s arrows, again, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of economic strength and military might. As the targets were symbols, then these were arrows aimed at the heart of a people, perhaps, in an attempt, to strip us of our sense of economic stability and personal and national security.

Although this tragedy is characterized as our national crisis, termed by the news media and others as an “Assault on America” or “America under Assault”, I do not agree. The magnitude of the violence and the breadth of the barbarism make it an assault not on the heart of America alone, but on the soul of humanity. All humanity, whether of good or ill will, is touched by this tragedy.  And all who long to live in that good creation, described by Howard Thurman,[2] and oft quoted by our own beloved Verna Dozier,[3] of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky”,[4] by this tragedy, once again, rudely have been roused from a dream of God into a waking, living nightmare. We are left to imagine, at least for us on these American shores, previously unimaginable terrorist possibilities – walk-in individual suicide bombings and biological weaponry. We are left to reflect on our history and to rethink, perhaps, to repent of what we as a nation have done to provoke such unrestrained hostility. Our psyche is wounded deeply. We yearn for healing. We search for peace.

In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions, those simultaneous and powerful counter pulls-and-pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves, abound.

On one side, anguish and anger will evolve into action. Our President, George W. Bush, in his September 11 address to the nation, directed our national resources “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Yesterday, signaling our country’s preparation for retaliation, he said, “We’re at war…and we will respond accordingly.” A normally partisan Congress and much of the country stand in accord with the pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators of this heinous act. On another side, fearing how anger and action can ripen into rage and revenge, how vengeance can perpetuate the very violence we hate, others advocate a different course. Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, in a September 11 statement, while affirming that justice must be done, declared that “people of faith…are called to another way…(a way of)…transformation…where swords can become plowshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.”

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer, if it ever was, only in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we desire to get to the other side of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven to be so in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion?  Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or perhaps what is this very human hubris that fashions so vengeful a face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I am not looking to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times. Hence, I look for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within. This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference. Around barriers and across boundaries internal and external, between our faith and our fears, between our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond the reach of our control. Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world. Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity.

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[5] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion. Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable, in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”[6]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Occurring in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, respectively.

[2] Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981), African American author, civil rights leaders, educator, philosopher, theologian, and mystic

[3] Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), African American biblical scholar, theologian, teacher, and writer.

[4] The Dream of God – A Call to Return (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991), page 31

[5] Philippians 4.7

[6] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee; words by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942)

Easter means…

a sermon, based on Acts 7.55-60 and John 14.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

Continuing our Easter season celebration at length and contemplation at depth of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, I offer one word: home. Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home.

Stephen, before stoned to death, beheld a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His dying testimony anticipated our creedal affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven…became incarnate…was crucified…suffered death…was buried…rose again…ascended into heaven…seated at the right hand of (God).”[1]

Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari

Easter means that Jesus found his way back home.

Now, if Easter is all and only about Jesus, then we have little reason to celebrate. Blessedly, there’s more! Jesus declares that finding home is about us. On the night before he died, Jesus bid his disciples be not troubled by his departure, promising that he would welcome them into God’s infinitely roomy house. So also testifies our creed: “(Jesus) will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.”

Easter means that we go home to God.

Where is this home? Stephen “gazed into heaven.” Presuming a first century cosmology of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of a series of concentric heavens, Stephen looked up. Yet I think God’s “many dwelling places” is not a description of celestial space or heavenly architecture. The question, therefore, is not where, but rather what is home? As we’re talking about the realm of God, indeed, God’s being and nature, “many dwelling places” is a symbol of the infinite capaciousness of God’s Love.

Easter means we always are at home in God, Who, as Love, allows nothing to keep us apart, not even we ourselves.

George Herbert[2] understood this. In his enchanting poem, Love Bade Me Welcome,[3] he writes of God who, as Love, unconditionally bids him come…

Yet he, aware of his mortality and iniquity, resists…

Love perceiving his hesitancy, draws closer; swift to erase any distance, to ease any dis-ease between them…

Herbert, desiring to be a worthy guest, honestly confesses that he is not…

Love replies in future tense, “you shall be”; for Herbert’s sense of his present unworthiness does not, cannot prevent Love from loving…

Herbert, perhaps disbelieving for joy, counters with specificity, naming his chiefest sins, unkindness and thanklessness; his guilt so great that he dares not look at God…

Love draws closer still, taking Herbert’s hand, smiling, speaking Self-referentially that the Creator of the eye best can decide whose eyes shall see God…

Herbert presses the point, declaring his shame in misusing the gift of sight; begging to be given what he deserves: the punishment of banishment from God’s presence…

Ah, says Love, shame, Herbert’s and ours, already has been embraced and embodied in Jesus; God, our Lover, living with us as we live and die, being in us for all time and beyond time…

Herbert, persuaded, agrees to come to table as Love’s servant…

Ah, no, says Love, it alway is I who serves…

Herbert, all of his protests overcome, finally accepts Love’s welcome; sitting with Love, supping, partaking of Love.

Easter means we become Who we receive: Love.

In our Anglican ethos, scripture, tradition, and reason proclaim God’s existence. Yet it is my life’s experience that proves God’s Love. Herbert’s experience is my experience! I have known moments of painful glory when unconditional love welcomed me. When others (and I’m not talking about people who didn’t and don’t know me, but rather people who knew and know me well, very well; knowing things about me that I despise and wouldn’t want them or anyone to know!) embraced me without regard or reserve, overcoming every obstacle of my sense of my unworthiness, calling me to accept, to love myself just as I am. Though never a constant state (indeed, what is?), I have known moments of being so loved that I love.

In my pastoral ministry, listening to, loving others, I also know that everyone has not had moments of this pained glory when, in spite of their poor self-esteem, indeed, in some cases, self-loathing, the love of others bade them welcome. I have grieved with those who, in their experiences of judgment and rejection, largely only know pain and no glory.

Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home. Easter means we are called to rise in new life here on earth, being and becoming, and giving what we have received that all will know God’s Love.

If Easter ain’t about that, then Easter ain’t about anything!

 

Illustration: Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Footnotes:

[1] From the Nicene Creed. The full text:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[2] George Herbert, Portrait by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh-born Anglican priest, orator, and poet (Portrait by Robert White, 1674, National Portrait Gallery)

 

[3] Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

 

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-1565-1570-juan-fernandez-de-navarrete

Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

“and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about self-differentiation, defining it as “knowing where others and I begin and end.” Being (most of the time!) a well-developed “self”, was…is for me one of the most difficult aspects of human living. For I arrived at adulthood through childhood and adolescence (I write this without any want or need to blame my folks, but rather with a firm hold on my responsibility for me) with a powerful and abiding yearning to be acknowledged and accepted.[1]

Whenever I’ve followed the leading of this longing, I’ve fallen into a chameleonic trap, adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations. (I say “trap”, for such people-pleasing conformism always proves too high a price to pay in misshaping and losing my self, my soul. Moreover, given that the person I’d presented myself to be was inauthentic, whatever acknowledgement and acceptance I gained was counterfeit.)

Now, whenever I’ve maintained a genuine respect for (that is, acknowledging and accepting) my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, I’m able to behave in a variety of healthy ways. I can hold in balance my dependence on others and their dependence on me, truly, our mutual interdependence. I can face criticism without defensiveness, conflict without retaliatory offensiveness, and rejection without self-pitying sadness.

This brings me to toxic people or, truth be told, people when they are (when I am) toxic. For the balance of self-differentiation is simply and profoundly that. A balance that I do not believe any of us, being marvelously and maddeningly consistent in our human inconsistency, always achieves or constantly maintains.

Speaking always and only for myself, when satisfying my hunger for acknowledgement and acceptance is my topmost aim and especially if…when I don’t get the response I seek, I’m subject to exhibit manifold unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors. Though I don’t intend to universalize my experience, there are two chief attitudes and actions I’ve seen in myself and others that I now identify as toxic: being unpredictable and unapologetic.

Unpredictable. I’m smiling, chatty, and engaging, then the next day or hour or moment, dour, quiet, and withdrawn. You, concerned, ask, “What’s wrong, Paul?” I shrug and sigh, “Oh, nothing.” Will you take the relational bait and pursue? If so, I’ve got you hooked wondering, worried about what you may have done to provoke such a change and perhaps wishing you could fix it.

At times like this, one my dearest friends, truly, brothers, the late, great Tim Veney, knew best, that is, healthily and helpfully, what to do. Walk away, leaving me to deal with me and telling me, always with a kindly smile, “Come back when the real Paul returns.”

Unapologetic. You try to engage me, reasonably describing your observations of my suddenly sullen discontent. I’ll lie, “No, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about” or I’ll deflect, refusing to name and claim my feelings, “Hmmm, methinks you’re the one with the issue. Are you upset about something that you’re not saying? If I had a problem, I’d tell you” or I’ll exaggerate, “You always try to make it about me” or “You never really try to understand me” or I’ll recriminate, “Do you remember last week when you were acting like you’ve accused me of behaving?” or I’ll judge, “When you’re like this, I’m much kinder to you than you are to me.”

When I’m in my toxic rut, my beloved wife, Pontheolla, like Tim, well knows and faithfully practices healthy and helpful, sanity-saving responses. Sometimes, she does it with a look, all at once, understanding and firm and sometimes with a word, “Paul, I will not engage you now. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.” Either or both ways, the effect is calming and disarming and sooner than later I return to my best…well, my better self.

There are myriad toxic behaviors, but the two aforementioned shall suffice. Moreover, this is my final word (for now) on human behavior. So, I’ll end where I started…

I began this series (October 12: “and” – a personal reflection on human behavior) with an opening word about a certain presidential candidate. As I reflect, he professes to be unpredictable and unapologetic. Hmmm

 

Footnote:

[1] I mentioned my need for acknowledgement and acceptance in my October 13 post: “and…most of the time!” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 2. It took me quite the while to discern how and why I am this way. For years now, I’ve seen it clearly. The roots trace back to my formative years and upbringing. I perceive my hungering need to be acknowledged and accepted as a combination of the sometimes spoken and largely unspoken and perhaps unintended lessons of my household and, equally, how I reacted to my foundational, familial environment. Given the latter, again, I have no desire or need to blame my folks (Lord, have mercy, I confess that I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime!). I also need not or ever blame anyone or anything else, for, until I die or become too decrepit or disabled to remain a sentient, semi-autonomous, ethical actor in the world, I’ll be the only me for whom I’m – and no one else is – responsible!