Frailty Along The Way

When I was the young rector of my first parish in the Mississippi Delta, I used to play ping-pong some afternoons with the older and wiser Presbyterian minister in the town.  It seems that I was pre-destined to win a few of those games.  And while we would slap the ball back and forth this younger minister would ask the older minister questions about the life and work we shared.  Once I asked, “What is the hardest thing for you?  What do you find is the most difficult part of being in the local church?”

Without missing a beat, and hitting a very good shot, he said, “Church discipline.”  He paused, and said, “And I believe that you will find it the most difficult as well, because you seem to be in this game as a pastor.”  Not death, not crisis, not carpet colors, or raising money, or soccer, or home games at the college . . . church discipline.

            “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies . . . probably because they are generally the same people.” – GK Chesterton.  

Every now and then I meet a person who is excited about discovering new faith in Christ, a new love for the Church, only to become discouraged when they realize that this “new” life within the Body of the faithful can sometimes be every bit as cantankerous as something else they might call “real life.”        

A brief reading of Paul’s letters to the early Church tells this story.  Why else would Paul be writing to the Romans, “let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light . . .”  As I have sometimes said to some of you, Paul did not write all of these letters because he had nothing better to do with his time.  Obviously the early Christians needed direction and encouragement.  They needed reminders of the life to which they had been called; a life that was every bit as difficult as life in something called we sometimes call the “real world.”

            I once read something recently that interested me, having served as a volunteer chaplain in a state penitentiary,

            Many studies have shown that people tend to exaggerate their own positive characteristics and abilities. For instance, studies have shown that most drivers think they’re a better-than-average driver. Psychologists call this the state of “illusory superiority.”

Recently (2014), a team of British researchers tested this common “better-than-average” tendency by surveying 85 convicts at a prison in South East England about their pro-social traits. The inmates were aged 18 to 34 and the majority had been jailed for acts of violence and robbery. The inmates completed questionnaires anonymously and in relative privacy. Here’s what the study concluded:

Compared with “an average prisoner” the [convicts] rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. Remarkably, they also rated themselves as higher on all these traits than “an average member of the community,” with one exception—law-abiding. The prisoners rated themselves as equivalent on this trait relative to an average community member.

Christian Jarrett, “Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public,” Research Digest (2-10-14)

            What are we to do in a community when everyone is convinced that they are not only right and nice, but more right and more nice than everyone else?

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is giving instruction on what to do when someone sins against us within the community.  Jesus advises a direct approach – in private. Take the grievance to its source, with the grace of privacy.  If that does not work take others with you; perhaps fresh ears and hearts might be helpful.  If the obstinacy remains, even in the midst of church authority, that person is choosing a path that is outside the boundaries of a graceful resolution.  Let them be as the unconverted to the community, a Gentile and Tax Collector; someone in need of transformation.  It reminds me of something I once heard from a wise and seasoned teacher.

I remember sitting in a seminary class at Sewanee, and hearing one of our professors say something that caused me to sit up and pay attention.  He said, “contrary to what many of you might think, or what you might feel, or what you have been told by others . . . being a Christian is something very different than being a doormat.”

Our class conversation had to do with boundaries; boundaries in personal life, family life, and Christian life.  Our professor was pointing out that often wolf-like behavior in some will take advantage of the sheep-like behavior in others.  Open communities like churches are occasionally safe havens for personalities willing to bend or break the most basic expectations or boundaries regarding decency, kindness, patience, and understanding.  Escalations in rhetoric and a certain flavor of righteous indignation cause other more demure personalities to become timid and afraid. 

As Paul is pointing out in Romans, reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy all have an opportunity to exist in the very places where Christians are encouraged and commanded to foster their opposites.

Some personalities are energized rather than enervated by conflict and the breaking of boundaries; and if the truth were told, we all probably have such tendencies.

Rationalization, fear, conflict avoidance: these sometimes masquerade as a superficial version of “turning the other cheek,” and those willing to cross common boundaries of decency, kindness, and patience will use a naturally patient, or passive, environment to make doormats of others.  Alphas presuming upon the beta reticence of others.

Our professor was offering us both a warning, and a promise. 

The warning is that Christian communities will sometimes invite persons who will have little regard for observing common boundaries; and there is a temptation in the name of a weak Christian charity to subsequently become a doormat. 

The promise is that those who are hurt when such boundaries are crossed have some path of redress and hope; bad behavior does not have to be perpetually endured.  There is scriptural injunction, both from Jesus and Paul, as well as in the teachings of the Church, to address such situations.

This small directive from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel gives the individual believer, as well as the larger Church, a path out of the wilderness of hurt and alienation.  The question is whether or not we will accept this path when any one of us becomes hurt or wounded in the midst of our community life. 

It is the rare person that can immediately do what Jesus is advocating in Matthew’s Gospel; go directly to the one at fault and lay bare our hearts.  Such immediacy, though commendable, is often very difficult.  There is always the gift of time; and there is always the gift of time in prayer for the one, or ones, that have hurt us. 

Bringing those who have hurt us into the presence of Christ in the midst of our prayers brings calm, and sometimes brings an added clarity, so that we might see the role we may have played in creating a situation of harm and hurt. 

I do not believe that God is glorified by manufactured feelings of forgiveness, and that we may need to spend some time in our own tears, recognizing our own limitations, before we seek to simply point out the fault of another.  Nor is God glorified when we meet anger, either justified or misplaced, with our own version of righteous retribution.  As Abigail Van Buren, Dear Abby, once said, “Those who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes.”

In my own life, when I am hurt in such a way, I will sometimes pray with a trusted Christian friend for the one who has done the hurting. 

We will also pray that my own fault or participation in creating a situation of harm, be acknowledged and offered in confession; it is a way of entering the sacred space of Christ’s promise, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.”

In the past year, some of you may have noticed at times that I am changing the words of the prayer book – call the Bishop.  In the Lord’s prayer I am finding it more and more helpful to use this phrase . . . “Forgive us our trespasses as we are forgiving those who are trespassing against us.”  Bringing those words and intentions into the active voice help me to find a place to put my anger and my own fault.  It helps me find the medicine that Christ has promised when relationships are broken and I am hurt and angry.

Sometimes such prayer and reflection become preparation for an eventual reconciliation.  It is one way to seek to make whole what has been broken. 

There is an old Cherokee story that describes the nature of such prayer.  It is a proverb that I have shared many times in the past.  It still holds truth.  

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, there is a terrible battle between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which one of them wins this battle?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that I feed.”

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