Only Love Matters…

Every other Sunday evening, I take my mother to church. Connie, my sister, and I take turns. The service we attend is called: Country Church. Most of the folks that attend are older, and the music is kind of down-home with more than a hint of Southern gospel. They have a background set that looks like an old country store. The band and worship ensemble wear western boots and an occasional western hat. The service begins with the worship leader…or maybe that should be trail boss… greeting the congregation with “HowDEEE!”
Really….
Pure kitsch…
But… I sometimes kind of like it. (When my eyes aren’t rolling…) Mainly because many of the songs they sing are ones from my childhood. It reminds me from where I came, and my heritage, or at least some of it. Mom really enjoys it, especially the preaching. That part I sometimes find hard to sit through. It is a Southern Baptist church, and the conservative slant can really grate on my moderate nerves.
Mom is 89-years-old. She has increasing, age-related dementia, exacerbated, I think, by the fact that she has bi-polar disorder. We never knew that as we were growing up, but noticed that about every 7 years, she would have a depressive break. Looking back, and talking to my brother and sister, I think that each break changed her. She is on medication now, but my sister bore the brunt of her last break, and it was really difficult for her and Butch, my brother-in-law. Moving here has been an opportunity for me to take on some of the load of dealing with Mom.

As I considered moving, that was one of the issues that worried me. How would I respond to Mom? Our relationship, or maybe it is more accurate to say my relationship with her, has been difficult. Yet I am not sure I realized that, until the last 10-15 years. It especially became apparent to me after my divorce, and I began to take some classes in seminary that led me to explore issues with my family of origin. Especially issues with my mother. I had to take an honest look at this most intimate, and fundamental female relationship.
We each begin existence encased in the body of another person. When we are born, the mother-child relationship is extremely important, because in it we find our most basic needs are met, or they aren’t. We learn a lot about the world, or rather what we expect from the world in terms of safety and comfort and provision in this one relationship. Even though a father can come alongside to care and help a mother meet the needs of an infant, the child’s attachment to its mother contributes to what it feels about life and the world… and themselves.
I won’t go into it here, but Mom’s illness affected me in those earliest days of my infancy. I have needed to look back, be honest about the lack of stability in our relationship, but also other parts of my life as a growing child. I needed to grieve it, which included anger at the way I felt I was perceived by my mother. I felt like I was expected to be a heathen, and many times as an adolescent, I fulfilled the expectation nicely. I know that she and my father loved me, but I couldn’t gloss over how some of their decisions, manner of living, and approach to life; which included Mom’s illness; affected me. I am NOT trying to figure out where to place blame. Blame is a form of denial, not truth-finding. I needed to understand why I felt the way I did for much of my life, so I could begin to heal, grow and change.

When I first moved to Florida, near my mother, and siblings; I was still angry with her. I now understand the anger was both natural… I needed to feel it… but it was tied to my own unfulfilled expectations of her, and how I wished she would have interacted with me. This was a necessary step in my healing. When she called…I didn’t answer. I seldom spent time with her. I was afraid that her tendency to live in guilt would affect my thinking and feelings about myself. It had my whole life, and I was just being freed from it due to personal growth, and God’s grace. She felt the absence, too, and kept trying to get me to draw nearer to her. By using guilt… so it was a vicious circle.
Then I became involved in a relationship with a woman that eventually didn’t work out. When we broke up, I began to explore my part in the break-up. I did a similar, much more extensive process when my marriage of 23 years ended. In both circumstances, I tried to examine what I did well, and what I didn’t do so well.
One day, as I was thinking about the most recent break-up, I believe God spoke to me, and helped me realize that in order for me to go forward into another relationship with a woman; I needed to seek reconciliation with my mother. Or, more honestly, reconciliation with my feelings about Mom. I needed to see her as she is, was, and what she was capable of being, rather than what I wished and expected her to be. She needed to be a flesh-and-blood person, with great strengths and great failings. I needed to see… her… not a caricature of my own making. I was beginning to believe I could see her as a sister-in-Christ…as the Beloved of God. Maybe, if I could see her in that light, I could love her as she is and was, and maybe even…myself. God began to show me that, as she continues to grow older, and more child-like, I would sort of father my mother. This began to give me some hope, because I enjoy many aspects of being a father. Age has softened me, too, so I am more patient, and am able to find humor instead of frustration…

Mostly…
Every quarter, Country Church has a service with only music. They call it: The Grand Old Gospel Opry…
Of course they do…
The Grand Old Gospel Opry is quite popular especially with the crowd that usually attends Country Church, which are generally senior adults. Mom, however, usually doesn’t attend because she likes to hear the pastor preach. This past Sunday evening was one of those nights and there were “Special Guests” to go along with the regular bunkhouse gang. (Actually, the worship team and band is quite talented…) On this night there was a bluegrass band and a men’s quartet, a man and wife who travel as evangelists, and other groupings of people that attend the church.
We began with congregational singing. I enjoyed the songs, because they were ones we would sing while my family was in evangelism. A noticeable theme began to evolve with each song: Heaven.
“That makes sense…” I thought. “Play to your crowd.”
The evangelists got up next and began to sing together. I was reminded of sooo many couples I have seen and known through the years. People that travelled from church to church, singing and preaching the gospel. People like my family. This was before four-dollar-gas and one-hundred-dollar-a-night motels; when singers used pre-recorded-sound-tracks that weren’t considered karaoke, and there were only three or four channels on TV, so there weren’t as many entertainment opportunities to compete with the drama of revivals. My first thoughts in response to the couple were pretty negative:

“C’mon brother… don’t you know that your time has passed? That style of doing church is dead and ineffective.”
However, it occurs to me just how much I needed to see them. They were like characters emanating from my heritage of faith. People who put aside a safe, and consumptive lifestyle in order to tell other people about the Christ of new beginnings, of new life, of resurrection… I need to embrace that heritage. It was hard and disruptive… for me, but also for my mother. Mom raised three kids on the road, from one conglomeration of church services to another, all the while having to keep the kids occupied and quiet every evening for a couple hours of church, while sitting IN FRONT of scores of people that could be VERY critical of the preacher’s wife and kids! It was keeping the kids entertained in the car through endless miles of travel. It was keeping the family fed while in poverty, and in clean clothes washed either in borrowed washers and dryers, in a laundromat, or in the sink of a travel trailer and then hung to dry on a makeshift clothesline. It was using cold starch on my father’s white shirts, so they would be… just….so……. It was being the kids’ first (and only at least for a period of time) teacher. It was singing in front of people though she felt intimidated by her self-perceived lack of musical talent.
A tough life…
A committed life…
The service wound along until a trio of women began to sing. Mom said that one of the women was…

“…the daughter of the song leader. She just finished college and is really pretty. I wish I knew somebody that knows her, so I could introduce you to her.”
“Um…. Mom….she is the same age as my daughter…”
“Oh…”
Right now, to my mother at times, I am still about 27. A young man. I think it is because I am single, and we weren’t around each other for so many years. For my first birthday after I moved here, she gave me a book entitled: “God’s Little Instruction Book for Graduates”.
Well… I have been in grad-school for the past three years…
And I confess that in my OWN mind, I still feel like I am 27… at least until I wake up in the morning… then my body says: “Helloooo 52…”
The most beautiful part of the Opry was several songs into the set of the men’s quartet. I had been enjoying the quartet, and remembered how often we would drive many miles to hear quartets when I was young. My dad loved men’s quartets. While he was in college and grad-school at small religious schools, Dad travelled with other young men in a quartet doing public relations for the school. In fact, that was how my mom and dad first met. Dad’s quartet held a concert at the church my mother attended, and they first noticed each other. Eventually, Mom enrolled in the same school.
Pretty effective public relations, I would say…
My father was the first tenor in that quartet, and as Mom and I listened to the first tenor of the Opry quartet singing lead; she leaned in to me and said with quivering voice, “That makes me think of your dad.”

I gently put my arm around my mother, and pulled her tightly against me. She began to quietly cry freely.
For just a moment, my imagination took me to a little church in West Virginia, and I saw a young woman, with striking auburn hair and expressive brown eyes, about 17 or 18-years-old sitting in a hot, crowded sanctuary listening attentively to a group of young men sing. One young man especially held her attention… the good looking first tenor with the crisply starched, white shirt beneath the trimly cut black suit. His hair was dark, and slicked back, and she noticed that as his gaze travelled across the crowd, it would linger with increasing frequency in her direction. With each repeated gaze, both their hearts would beat a little faster. After the concert was over, she would go to the table with information about the college he represented, and ask for a brochure… just to, you know, learn about the academic programs. He would shyly approach her, and their eyes would once again meet. He would hand her the brochure… their hands would touch ever-so slightly… Sparks!
As she cried, my heart cried with her.
For her loss of her Love…
For the loneliness in her life now…
For her desire to be near him again…
Somewhere inside me, I began to see my mother for the first time. The past disappointments and frustrations I felt through the years didn’t really matter. Love began to vibrate for this woman that bore me and introduced me so imperfectly to the world. I saw, instead, God’s beloved daughter. My natural fatherly instincts began to take over. As the song ended, and before we began to applaud, I kissed her on the forehead, as I would my own daughter.

Before I moved to Florida, I wrote four blogs in which I suggested the need for me to be redeemed to my heritage, and my heritage redeemed to me.
God is doing just that…

Liturgy for A Political Divide…

I just returned from the Face 2 Face component of my online seminary program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Part of the program entails travelling to the seminary campus in Portland, for a more traditional classroom setting. This occurs each semester, and allows us to come together with the members of our cohort, meet the professor and online coordinator, and other members of the seminary community. Face 2 Face is always the highlight of each semester. The document below, was written for a class I am taking: Christian Ministry for Reconciliation. The class is about the process of reconciliation; whether it be in a marriage, racial divides, societal issues, gender issues, or whatever division needing reconciliation. The document below was drafted by myself and two classmates for an assignment which required us to draft a liturgy for a public worship service. My group had to choose the issue needing reconciliation, and then create the liturgy. Our group chose the issue of reconciliation between political parties after a national election. My group was compiled of three men. Two of us came from denominational traditions which had little experience designing liturgy, and one member from a tradition which frequently does use liturgy. Derek, designed the liturgy, while John wrote the statement from the winning party, and I wrote the statement from the losing party. While I didn’t vote for the candidate which lost the recent presidential election, I found it quite helpful to have to put myself in the place of the opposing side. In fact, I think it very helpful in working towards political unity, at least a functional unity with a commitment to choose active engagement with the other side in order to come to practical consensus leading to effective governance, in order to be forced to consider the other side’s position and “place”. In other words, to put myself in the shoes of the other guy/gal. Actually, in the reconciliation of a marriage, one of the important parts in the process is to understand how our choices, actions, and beliefs affect the other person. 

We could see this being used in a Washington Prayer Breakfast, or similar worship service attended by members of both parties:

( I should note that the “enemy” which is part of the scripture passage in Lamentations, is not the other political party! The “Enemy” is rather the Enemy of our souls, who thrives on dissension and divided communities.)

Opening Scripture

Matthew 5:24 ESV

Leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Call and Response

LEADER: Lord, we come together, but we stand divided

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

 

LEADER: Lord, our hearts share the interest of our people, but we have failed to deliver them their hope

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

LEADER: Lord, we have not become all things to all people, willing to see both sides of every issue as equal and relevant.

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

 

ALL: Reconcile us, we pray.

 

 

 

The Confession of the elected Party

With sincere humility we confess that the outcome of this election in no way confers moral or divine superiority to our party. We recognize that no one group or party can represent every issue, or understand the needs and concerns of every person. In light of this we commit to the following:

1)      To walk in humility, honesty, integrity and respect for every person regardless of their stance on any particular issue or affiliation with any particular party

2)      To seek the good of all people and groups regardless of their race, gender, age, culture, or personal conviction.

3)      When the inevitable change of power comes about, to seek the good of the nation as a whole and work with those duly elected in a spirit of peace and reconciliation

 

Confession of the defeated Party

We acknowledge the recent political election has resulted in our electoral loss.

We acknowledge that our country is currently divided along disparate lines.

We acknowledge the need for greater statesmanship and a commitment to governance.

We realize the necessity of listening to each other and refrain from the temptation to believe political power will ultimately answer all the issues we face as a country.

We realize the need to live in respect for each other, and hold our views and interests in humility.

We realize our country is in tumultuous change, and in need of compassion, and justice for all.

We commit ourselves to courageously voice our principles and to listen to those which disagree with us.

We commit ourselves to maintain an open mind, and open heart to those with differing opinions.

We commit ourselves to stay engaged in ongoing conversations and to work to unity in addressing the issues our country faces.

ALL:

May the Lord give us strength; may the Lord bless us with peace.  Amen

Psalms 29:11

Empty Calories II…

(This is a continuation of a post from several days ago…)

And yet…

It isn’t the end of the story, as John tells it. The story continues as Jesus leaves the crowd and his companions to venture into the mountains by himself to pray. The disciples go down to the shore, enter their boats, and push off into the sea. A surprising response to both the miracle, and to Jesus’ absence, but life once again must go on, even after miracles… Darkness catches the disciples in the middle of the sea, without Jesus, and a storm rushes in. As the disciples despair of life, they find Jesus…

…in the middle of the sea

…in the middle of the storm

…walking on the water

…the disciples fear him a ghost

…and Jesus calls Peter onto the water

…catches him when he falls

…then gets in the boat and it comes quickly to shore.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

I have a renewed friendship with a woman I knew in college. At the time, we were basically friendly acquaintances, whose paths crossed in the music department while in choirs, operas, and the like. Eventually, she married a guy that shared an apartment with me at the time. I really liked the guy, and he was especially caring for me when my father was killed in a truck accident. Our lives took sharp turns away from each other after college, and she enjoyed a deep love with my buddy as well as shared ministry with him. They had two daughters later in life, and while the girls were young, he was found to have cancer. After a heroic battle with the disease, he died, and his wife… my re-found friend… was left to raise the girls alone. My buddy did a wonderful job of organizing their financial affairs during the final stages of his disease, so his three girls have been supported and cared for by him even from the grave. He was and is a wonderful, courageous father and husband… one for his daughters to remember as a model as they eventually enter relationships of their own.

Lori, Dave’s wife and my friend, has born the grief in heroic fashion, too, I must say. Even though Dave’s provision has cared for their needs, and her church family was deeply supportive, she still has had to walk through the dark storm of grief, loss, and the wet blanket of loneliness which seems to suffocate hope at times. I imagine her to be like the disciples in the boat, on a violently tossing sea, fighting despair and trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus through the darkness, rain, and waves.

This year is the fourth since Dave’s death. Each New Year, Lori tries to find a one-word theme to pull her through each day as a faith-mantra that invites her gaze to continue to slice through the storm to find the Beloved Christ walking upon the open sea. This year, our friendship was renewed due to a Facebook status I wrote at the end of 2012 which was trying to point towards the living presence of Christ in 2013 even before we arrived there. I wrote the status, as a message not only to others, but also to myself. I suggested that we either do or do not trust that God loves us, and is capable of bringing resurrection out of death. Lori and I exchanged comments about the post, and I suggested a beloved book I have read: Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning. Through this interaction, Lori decided to use the word, Trust, as her theme for 2013. We are now reading the book together and conversing about our lives and God’s presence in them.

I will include below some excerpts from Ruthless Trust about following the confident, water-striding Christ:

Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for the love of it” (Pg. 2)

 

“Unwavering trust is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus’ cross falls across our lives in the form of failure, rejection, abandonment, betrayal, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one, when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems a hostile, menacing place—at those times we may cry out in anguish, ‘How could a loving God permit this to happen?’ At those moments the seeds of distrust are sown. It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us.” (Pg. 4)

 

“Craving clarity, we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God. Fear of the unknown path stretching ahead of us destroys childlike trust in the Father’s active goodness and unrestricted love.

We often presume that trust will dispel the confusion, illuminate the darkness, vanquish the uncertainty, and redeem the times. But the crowd of witnesses in Hebrews 11 testifies that this is not the case. Our trust does not bring final clarity on this earth. It does not still the chaos or dull the pain or provide a crutch. When all else is unclear, the heart of trust says, as Jesus did on the cross, ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’ (Luke 23:46)

If we could free ourselves from the temptation to make faith a mindless assent to a dusty pawnshop of doctrinal beliefs, we would discover with alarm that the essence of biblical faith lies in trusting God. And as Marcus Borg has noted, ‘The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart. The first can leave us unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change.’

The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God than a practical trust in his loving care under whatever pressure. The stakes here are enormous, for I have not said in my heart ‘God exists,’ until I have said, ‘I trust you.’ The first assertion is rational, abstract, a matter perhaps of natural theology, the mind laboring at its logic. The second is ‘communion, bread on the tongue from an unseen hand.’ Against insurmountable obstacles and without a clue as to the outcome, the trusting heart says, ‘Abba, I surrender my will and my life to you without any reservation and with boundless confidence, for you are my loving Father.” (Pg. 6-7)

 

The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.” (Pg. 12-13)

 

“Wallowing in shame, remorse, self-hatred, and guilt over real or imagined failings in our past lives betrays a distrust in the love of God. It shows that we have not accepted the acceptance of Jesus Christ and thus have rejected the total sufficiency of his redeeming work. Preoccupation with our past sins, present weaknesses, and character defects gets our emotions churning in self-destructive ways, closes us within the mighty citadel of self, and preempts the presence of a compassionate God.” (Pg.15)

 

Hopefully you get just a taste of the feast within this small book. Trusting God is stepping out of the boat of perceived safety all-the-while feeling like an idiot! Risking trust will most likely open us to the criticism of those still huddled in fear in the thin structures of the boat of legalistic comfort, and humanly constructed and maintained moral safety which is inherent in human empires… especially religious ones. The crowd in the boat will most likely shout words of shame in our direction, and our inner voices are tempted to pick up the chant and even expand them. Yet the grace and mercy of the walking Christ invites us to cast the words into the depths of the untamable waves of God’s forgiveness. There is no going back… Rather… full speed ahead!

More Thoughts on the Story of Cain and Abel…

God’s statements about Cain’s action towards his brother:

Gen. 4:10- “…your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

Gen. 4:11- “And now you are cursed from the ground.”

Gen. 4:12- “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you it’s

strength.”

Gen. 4:12- “…you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Thoughts:

-Our violent actions towards others cut us off from Eden’s strength and richness. We trade God’s provision and personal protection for Want and Fear. Our attitude changes from receiving gratefully with intentions of mutuality to taking with selfishness and exclusion. We walk away from Eden and settle in Nod to build self-made empires which war with Edenic principles.

Cain’s response:

Gen. 4:13- “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”

Gen. 4:14- “Today you have driven me away from the soil…”

Gen. 4:14- “…and I shall be hidden from your face.”

Gen. 4:14- “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth…”

Gen. 4:14- “…and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Thoughts:

-Cain’s thoughts about punishment show immaturity regarding the responsibility and consequences of his own actions. Violence sows the seeds of its own punishment. Living by the sword and exerting power is self-defeating. Humans and the earth have long memories. Cain speaks as a child punished by a greater, adult power rather than as an adult who realizes with horror the sad viciousness of their own behavior, and the isolation of their own hatred. Power isolates; it doesn’t bring the healing coalescence of forgiveness and repentance. Cain’s statements about his “punishment” being “greater than I can bear” points to the need for a “second Abel” who’s death and resurrection frees us from the dysfunctional society brought about by a reliance upon power as a means of interacting with each other. The words, life, and death of Christ absorbs the power of violence, and reinstates Edenic principles which embrace death while inviting us into daily life unencumbered by fear while bracing into the Garden-life given us by God.

-“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s unanswered question continues to reverberate in our experience. While there is a sense in which we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper, there is also a dissonant chord in life and throughout the scripture which weds communal connection with personal responsibility. The economic structures of Levitical law maintain this dissonance. Although it is still possible for one to sell themself into bondage, there is also a Kinsman Redeemer who arrives to buy the family homestead back into the fold of the larger community. By so doing, generational poverty is averted, and the gifts of God are redeemed.

-While Cain’s violent action towards his brother is allowed, he is saved from the vengeance of those unknown persons living in lands through which he might wander. God places a “mark” on Cain, which distinguishes him in his wanderings as one forgiven and protected. By so doing, God redeems his life, yet doesn’t restrict his freedom. God’s daring work of grace invites Cain back into relationship with God, but also into the community. Cain’s mark hints that, although Cain is in exile, God goes with him into exile.

-Is violence always a physical act? Is there a difference between power and control?

Hidden Toxins…

Below is a paper I submitted for the class: Spirituality, Shame, and Grace. Some of the formatting may be a little messy…. Sorry.

Hidden Toxins

 

 

In 1962, author Rachel Carson published a book that was to become a hallmark in the environmental movement: Silent Spring. The book outlines the effects of chemical insecticides of that time period, in particular DDT, on not only insects, but also upon the entirety of a biological ecosystem. At the time, DDT as well as some chemical defoliants were commonly used not only for industrial applications, but also for home use. Silent Spring began with the premise that environmental systems were linked in an intricate dance in which all living things were connected, and when toxic chemicals were used for the control of one organism, they didn’t stop in their toxicity with just the intended species, but continued to poison all the way up the biological line until their effects contributed to the ill-health of humans, as well. The intension of becoming free from relatively minor irritants, caused the unintended consequence of actually limiting the healthy freedom of a balanced environment, which provided for the physical needs of a multiplicity of living things.

The freedom of disease killed the freedom of health.

In Genesis 2:7-3:24, the story is written about another instance where the perfectly designed balance of the creation is burdened with the choice of a freedom which kills over a freedom which heals. The scene is a garden where the inhabitants live in harmony within an environment linked in healthy balance, not only in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual, and emotional sense as well. The relational balance is generative and co-creative, with each being sharing and expressing their unique, and innate value in the beauty of love and mutual respect. As with all designs, there were boundaries with delineated responsibilities, and where mutual respect was part of the design. The overarching value was one of love and trust. God created the beauty of a garden, and invited people to be partners in its maintenance and expansion: a healthy freedom.

However, as the story goes, an adversary approached the people, offering a larger, more expansive freedom; or so the marketing schpeel went. The promise seemed to be attractive, yet it was based on the toxicity of lies:

“Did God say, ’You may not eat from any tree in the garden?’”

“You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The toxicity of these lies is in the deviance of their hiddenness. They are pervasive and invasive lies:

You cannot trust God to have your best interests at heart.

You are not enough, as you are. You should be more than you are.

The people freely ingested the lies, and the fruit of these seeds of doubt was shame.

Although the story is set in antiquity, it is always a present story, because the toxicity of shame is hidden within each of us. In these few pages, I will attempt to explain how this class has revealed to me both the disease process of my own hidden shame, but also the freedom I am finding in new understandings of grace which are clearer now than before the class. I will also write of how these new understandings have helped me in a ministry context.

 

 

Personal Experience:

It seems like I have spent most of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. No matter how I presented myself, the success I experienced, the loves I shared; my feeling was that sooner or later, it would be gone… I would be found out. The voice in my head assured me of that. I’m not sure the voice was originally mine. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. But as the years progressed, the voice became mine. Sometimes the voice spoke in words, but most of the time, it was just a deep feeling of personal, innate failure. I never really knew what to call it. I called it guilt for most of my life. However, I am now able to call it by its real name: Shame. Jeff Van Vonderan defines it nicely:

Let me clarify something. Shame is often confused with guilt. But they’re not the same. God created you and me so that when we do something wrong we experience a sense of guilt. Guilt is like a spiritual nerve-response to sin, an emotion in response to wrong behavior (“I acted in a way that was wrong and I feel guilty”). Those uncomfortable impulses that stab our conscience are meant to turn us away from the wrong we’re doing and turn us back to God. In that sense, guilt is a healthy thing. Because guilt comes as a result of something you and I do, we can do something about it–change our behavior– and the guilty feeling will go away.

Shame on the other hand, is not just a feeling, though we often speak of it that way (“You ought to feel ashamed of yourself!”) Shame is the belief or mindset that something is wrong with you. It’s something you can live with and not necessarily be aware of. It’s not that you feel bad about your behavior, it’s that you sense or believe you are deficient, defective, or worthless as a human being.

Consequently, you develop a shame-based way of looking at yourself. You accept the view that others might slip up and make mistakes once in a while, but they’re still basically worthwhile people. You, however, are like a mirror image of that: No matter how many times you get it right ( whatever it is, according to the standards of your environment) you will never be acceptable. Deep down, you believe something is wrong with you.”

My parents were wonderful people. Dad was an old-school evangelist during the beginning of my life. That meant that the whole family would travel by car from one revival meeting to another. I have two older (much older… and I love to remind them of that fact) siblings who were essentially raised traveling in this fashion. It was a difficult life for my mother, especially. About every 9 years, she would have an emotional break. We have since learned that she has Bi-polar disorder. Speaking to my siblings, I learned that she was different after I was born. She was an older mother when I was born, and had one of her depressive breaks shortly afterward which required hospitalization, so I was cared for by friends of the family while my father, brother, and sister traveled to revivals. I noticed throughout my life, that I had emotional peaks and valleys periodically. Although they are not extreme enough for me to question if I am bi-polar, they have been a fixture from childhood. Infants learn emotional habits from their primary caregiver. These ways of feeling about the world and themselves are the first messages they receive about whether they are safe and if their efforts of communication will be successful or not. While the intellect isn’t developed enough to understand these messages, their brains make neural connections in the limbic region. Since this region is also the center of the emotions, the messages are related to feelings, rather than thoughts. I believe my fluctuation in emotions through the years are simply emotional habits carried over from infancy.

In contrast to these inward, emotional habits; I learned (as does every preacher’s kid) how to perform and make a good first impression. While this wasn’t something I remember being verbally taught, it just seems something I have always known. From the age of 2, my siblings and I began to sing publicly, as part of the music in each revival service. I was somewhat shy as a child, and since we moved frequently, I never really developed skills of intimacy which long-term friendships require. My companions were my immediate family, or most typically, myself. I now see how these two contrasting experiences developed a type of emotional dissonance within. I became good at performance, and could get along with people for short periods of time, but knowing how to allow someone to come inside my private world to the feeling level was especially difficult. Understanding the normal give and take of relationships was not something I learned. My perceptions of what others thought of me, was based on surface issues.

The faith tradition I was raised in was conservative, focusing on legalistic outward appearance, all the while preaching a message of pursuing God, and holiness. Evidence of personal holiness was especially defined in external life style. However, the emphasis was placed more on what we didn’t do, rather than how we lived as Christ would in the world. I must say that my father didn’t preach in this manner, or live that way either, and although Mom wouldn’t have held other people up to these standards, she constantly fought her own demons of shame. I have always said that Mom always fought feelings of guilt in her own walk with God, and was a great purveyor of guilt to her children, but in a very subtle way. I have always been very intuitive, so it wasn’t hard for me to catch her subtle references that there was something wrong with me.

Actually, I now see that there have been both inward and outward voices of shame in my life. The origins of these voices have remained hidden until recent years. As a result of these voices, my ability to feel God’s love for me became essentially non-existent across the totality of my life. I felt God’s love for me when I performed well, but in the weak areas of my life, or in my sin… I waited for the other shoe to drop.

I lived most of my adult life by an equation:

Church + Family + Performance = Worth.

Eventually, after years living in the “Try harder/Give up” cycle Van Vonderan describes, an unsatisfying marriage that ended in divorce, difficulty in being able to stay in a career I seem best suited for: ministry, and recurring financial issues; all the factors on the left side of the equation collapsed in a heap. I was left with a deep, personal sense of failure, and huge pockets of hidden, toxic feelings of shame.

Through the midst of it, though, God has been speaking to me in metaphors which reach to the deepest parts of me, to redefine fundamental terms of the Christian faith in ways I can understand, and feel. I have found that shame is peeled away, layer by layer. God has spoken to me in powerful ways through the natural world, through the bible– yet in ways radically different than I learned before– through books– both secular and religious– and in popular media– including movies, plays, and music. God has also used both old and new friends to allow me to see glimpses of the value God sees in me and created in me: the Imago Dei. These friends have spoken good into my life. I have finally come to know that I worship God, while before, I worshipped god: a religious figurehead of morality, who is quite emotionally unstable, and unrelenting in his expectations. The God I now know is both Father and Mother, although it is taking time for me to relate more fully to Mother God.

I found the most powerful ideas for personal change within the class, to be:

Van Vonderan’s discussion of the Rest cycle. Although his manner of communicating the message of renewal of our mind to the actions of Christ on our behalf, was so close to what I’d always heard that I had difficulty stepping outside my tradition; the diagram was helpful.

Justification by Grace. David and Sandra Rhoads’ article in Robert Jewett’s compilation was powerfully helpful to me, especially David’s explanation of the different models of redemption:

Justification by grace is not the only, nor indeed the most common view of redemption in Christian churches. The most common view of redemption among Christians is that Jesus died for people’s sins to be forgiven. This is the abbreviated formula: All people have sinned and, as such, they deserve judgment and death. Through Jesus, God forgives their sins and saves them for eternal life. There is a tendency to collapse justification by grace into this popular formula of forgiveness, as if they were the same thing. After a recent lecture I gave on this subject, a former Lutheran bishop acknowledged that it had never occurred to him that justification and forgiveness were not the same.

Justification and forgiveness are, in some sense, quite different models of redemption. One way to understand the difference between justification and forgiveness is to realize that forgiveness works within a system. Forgiveness leaves in place the legal/moral system that is used to make ourselves right with God and others. It affirms our successes in meeting the lawful standards and addresses only our sinful failings. So, we do our best to follow the laws and be good moral humans– and God forgives us when we fail to live up to that system. The system remains in place and also our efforts to justify ourselves before God remain in place. We make it in the system because we get help from God, who forgives the failings. The status of the legal/moral system is reinforced in the process of forgiveness. And the performance principle– our efforts to justify ourselves before God by our actions in living up to a system of law– is also reinforced.

By contrast, justification by grace is an action by God (not by us) that justifies (sets us right with God) by (God’s) free choice to do so as a gift– based neither upon a system of standards nor upon human performance.”

I find Rhoads’ description of justification by grace most powerful because, while the forgiveness model of redemption views humanity as being innately wrong so that we need a system to be right with God, the justification by grace model views our perception of our value as the problem. Justification by grace speaks with powerful clarity regarding God’s belief in our value. Justification by grace with action by God, speaks and acts powerfully to address the Edenic lies of the snake:

“You can’t trust God…”

“You aren’t enough…”

by accepting the consequences of believing and living out those two statements: death alone, and shame. Thus, the need for the cross of Christ, and the resurrection which acts like a bridge to a return to relational Eden, with the values of love of God, love of self, and love of others.

Although this counteracts the power of shame, and neutralizes the hidden toxins within; living in the new reality takes practice, as Van Vonderan states:

“ The battle to recover from shame and live a life of freedom and fullness is waged in two primary arenas: the renewal of the mind, and the fight of faith.”

Ministry Experience:

A major source of the power of shame is that it is hidden. There are at least two aspects to this:

Sometimes it is hidden to us…

Other times it is known to us, but hidden from others…

It is God’s grace to make known to us the origins of our shame. Until we can know why we feel shame regarding our body image, for instance; we have great difficulty counter-acting the inward and outward voices which reinforce it.

Secondly, it is important for us to find a safe place with safe relationships where we can reveal our places of shame. Being honest about our pain is the first step towards healing. I believe this courageous action on our behalf, and the gracious listening of another person, is a practical act of confession. Twelve step groups have learned the power of shared incompleteness and shame, without the need to try and “fix” the other person.

I led a divorce support group where we tried to provide just such a safe place, where people could be honest about their feelings and speak openly about their perceptions of reality as they saw it. Just the act of listening can release the power of shame.

Another way the community can counteract shame, is by speaking good into the life of another. I don’t mean trite statements which deny the experience of another– as in pithy, syrupy statements to those in the middle of personal devastation and crisis– rather honest observations about the value and strengths of another person. While these statements may be caught in the “shame grid” of the other person, and they may have difficulty believing your observations of good in them; the Holy Spirit can keep them in the unconscious mind, until they are ready to be retrieved and “heard” by the person.

The church in the individualized West has lost the power of a shared community of faith. I believe we are so acculturated by both the redemption system of forgiveness, rather than justification of grace, and we each feel that salvation is an individualized act of individual faith; that we have denied the power of collective faith. Edward Wimberly explains this powerfully:

“As indicated before, the experience of guilt is not the dominant experience in our contemporary society. The experience of shame is by far the most prevalent experience. This lecture takes seriously that our contemporary experience is not the need for forgiveness for wrong behavior. Rather, ‘our contemporary experience is one of disconnection, of being unloved, of being overwhelmed by information, of experiencing nihilism or the loss of meaning, and of being inept and clumsy in human interaction and interpersonal relationships.’ The age of shame is the loss of love. It is the loss of meaningful community. It is the feeling that one is unlovable and will never be loved. The point is that a juridical model of guilt over sin and wrong behavior makes no sense when the dominant experience is being unloved. The guilt model presupposes an intact community where one’s sense of connection is not threatened unless one commit’s a heinous crime. Shame, however, is based on disconnection and a breakdown in community. Moreover, shame is a fundamental experience and is prior to guilt in the developmental cycle. Guilt, however, comes later in the developmental cycle when relationships are better formed.”

We currently live in a culture of division at every level of American society. Disconnection is a component of everyday life for many, if not most of us. And we feel alone because of it. Could it be that this is the natural outgrowth of strident individualism gone to seed? However, rather than face the pain courageously, embrace it, and allow it to drive us back into community; we seem to be self-medicating. In fact, I would contend we self-medicate in at least three ways:

Consumption as Self-Medication:

-We seem to make a commodity out of everything external… people, experiences, food, alcohol, tobacco, religion, art, career, etc… It seems that we feel like if we can just consume enough, the emptiness on the inside will be filled. While the emptiness is actually an echo of believing the Edenic lies of the snake. It is our innate value that we feel like we have lost. While that isn’t true, we are created with innate value… the Imago Dei… we can’t seem to believe it, so we cover our shame with consumption.

2. Money as Self-Medication:

Wimberly puts it well:

“The predominant impulses behind our desire to rise in the social hierarchy may be rooted not so much in the material goods we can accrue or the power we can wield as in the amount of love we stand to receive as a consequence of high status. Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of–and meant to– love rather than ends in themselves.

Love is no longer defined relationally. Rather, it is defined as the pursuit of things, and such a pursuit starves the soul and makes people shallow.”

3. Morality as Self-Medication:

This seems to be especially rampant in the church.

Now when people ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ they mean ‘What would a twenty-first century American Jesus do?’ The fact is there never was a twenty-first-century American Jesus. With a sense of anachronism and ethnocentrism, the question means what would a first-century Mediterranean, Israelite Jesus do. For most Bible readers, this is an insuperably unanswerable question. The only Jesus they know is one in their own U.S. image and likeness.”

The American church often seems to act towards the larger culture in fear that our value is being threatened, especially as it relates to what we say we believe, and our over-arching world view. We respond in anger to voices within our culture which espouse ideas which we interpret as being counter to our world view. Why would there be a need for anger, if we believed in a God who is perfectly capable of protecting Godself, and if our belief system were based in reality, rather than an attempt to protect our own beliefs, and perceived self-worth which is based on these faith-assumptions? Is our anger really about Truth, or about what we believe to be true? Is it about God, or ourselves? Do we fear that what we believe is not true? If all Truth is God’s Truth, why are we not open to interpretations different than our own? We act like a “truth junkie” who must do everything possible for our “truth fix”, no matter what we have to do and who we have to hurt in order to get it. Are we trying to make religious clones of ourselves in order to impress upon ourselves our worth?

One of the ways I hope to minister to the church is by encouraging and engaging in conversations about the manner in which we in the individualized West interpret the culture of the bible, and the cultural context in which Jesus lived. By learning the world and society in which Jesus moved and spoke, I think we are better able to identify the differences in our own context, and enliven our message to the cultural voices of shame in our part of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons Christianity is growing in the technologically emerging world is due to the communal nature of their society. Maybe they understand the bible better than we because the cultural contexts are similar. It might benefit us in the West to engage in cross-cultural conversations with brothers and sisters in these world areas about how they read and interpret the bible.

In conclusion, I would like to see communities of Christian faith which redeem and reframe our experience in ways that hold interpersonal respect, responsibility, and healthy, personal boundaries in tension with grace, unconditional love, and personal freedom. How does that happen? God knows, but I suspect it looks suspiciously like Eden, before the snake. A redeeming community allows exploration and embraces the dissonance of the moment in hope and assurance of future resolution in the Kingdom of Heaven, whether that be on earth, or in the next realm

1  http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Silent_Spring/Silent_Spring_Rachel_Carson04.html 

2 http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Silent_Spring/Silent_Spring_Rachel_Carson03.html

3 Genesis 3:1; New Revised Standard Version, HarperOne, San Francisco, CA; 2007

4 Gen. 3:4-5

5 Jeff Van Vonderan; Tired of Trying to Measure Up; Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN; 1989; Pg. 18

6 A General Theory of Love; Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.; New York, NY, Random House, Inc., 2000, Pg. 148-153

7 Van Vonderan, Pgs. 90-103.

8 Van Vonderan. Pg. 115-117.

9 Justification by Grace, David M. Rhoads and Sandra Roberts Rhoads in The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society, Edited by Robert Jewett; Cascade Books, Eugene, OR; 2011. Pg. 88-89.

10  Van Vonderan, Pg. 109.

11 “The mind begins with the belief system, or what I earlier referred to as the ‘shame grid.’ This means that you have a belief system that perpetuates shame.” Van Vonderan, Pg. 92.

12 Edward P. Wimberly; No Shame in Wesley’s Gospel, in Jewett. Pg.107.

13 Wimberly in Jewett. Pg.108.

14  Bruce J. Malina, Anachronism, Ethnocentrism, and Shame: The Envy of the Chief Priests; in Jewett. Pg.144.

 

 

Stones… Again

This is a re-post of one of my favorites…

A beautiful young woman walked the cobblestone street which traversed a steep incline through stately homes within view of both Herrod’s palace and the Temple. Beside her strode a stately Roman Centurion, both young and handsome, with a commanding saunter which showed confidence derived from youth and station. As the couple approached a narrow alleyway, she quickly surveyed the surrounding area, grabbed the man’s hand, and they furtively slid from direct view from anyone travelling the wider avenue. Moving quickly, the two approached a gate and stepped through. Closing the gate behind them rapidly, they emerged into a lush courtyard. Stepping underneath a vine-covered archway to conceal their actions from the view of wealthy gossips, the woman turned quickly to face the Roman and gave a deep, guttural laugh. The soldier looked down and flashed a slow smile, grabbing the woman around the waist. The woman slid her hand down to his leg and began searching for an entrance to his thigh through the armor covering his tunic.

Laughing, the soldier teased, “That armor is meant to ward off a warrior’s blade. Your nails will never find their mark.”

“Then I suppose we will have to remove it…” the woman taunted.

Raising her face towards his helmeted head, she brushed her lips slightly against his and then broke away from his embrace, running towards the back entrance of the palatial home.

“She is certainly brazen,” thought the soldier, “especially for a married woman.” Feeling just a bit leery, he asked, “Aren’t you afraid the servants will see us? I’m sure your husband would treat a slave kindly who protected him from a whoring wife.”

Stopping at the door she answered, “They are afraid. They know Romans know how to protect their conquests. Besides, my husband is probably right now in the arms of two women in Caesar’s household. It would certainly take two women to get their arms around him. They can have the spatter of his sweat and the flap of his belly as he pounds away on them. I would rather know the firmness of Caesar’s warrior… Come to me, Corin.”

Corin hesitated again for just a moment. Getting caught in an affair with this woman could destroy his bright career. Yosef, this woman’s husband, was a rich Jewish merchant who was the primary outfitter for the Roman legions occupying Palestine. Yosef even had ties to Egyptian traders, which allowed him to manage all supplies coming into the southeastern Mediterranean coast. By so doing, Rome could be spared using sailors and troops from the inane process of hauling their own bread. The Legions could be used for more strategic action both local and empire-wide. Using a local merchant also poured Roman gold into the local economy, helping to pacify leading citizens who might otherwise be intent on revolution and nobody made any money during revolution. So Caesar protected Yosef’s interests and kept a close tie with him, bringing him to Rome frequently and making any business trips he might need to make as comfortable and secure as possible. If Caesar found out that one of his officers disrupted the happy home of his prized merchant, that officer would become a eunuch carrying the armor of the most forward unit commander in the Legion. While Corin wasn’t afraid of battle, he was a veteran of many, he wouldn’t survive the humiliation. So if he deemed this woman worth the risk….

Ah, but that was part of the attraction. That adrenaline rush a man got when everything was on the line.

For her part, Shayna, Yosef’s wife, knew she wanted this man. She knew what she wanted was wrong. The Pharisees taught that she could be stoned for just this type of relationship. Her father would probably be the first to pick up a stone if she were caught. He had been the one to get her into this marriage anyway. Well…. Her father had accepted Yosef’s generous bridal offer. Yosef noticed her at the market while she ran errands for her mother and determined the beautiful girl would be his. Shayna’s father believed accepting the offer made sense for both Shayna and the rest of his family. Shayna would be taken care of in the house of such a wealthy man and his other children would have other options because of Yosef’s generosity. The fact that Yosef was 30 years older than Shayna didn’t matter. In fact, it was very common.

However, to Shayna, her marriage and life had no meaning. She felt nothing but contempt for her husband and her life was a bore. She was angry, and hated it that she was really nothing more than her body. In her culture, women were only useful for their bodies: working in the home, bearing the children, meeting the sexual desires of the husbands… So when Shayna saw this strong, tall Roman standing at her doorway as Yosef’s dinner guest one night, she decided she wanted him. Without knowing it, she was expressing her anger for the lack of choices allowed her, by choosing an action that symbolically spat in the face of Yosef, her father, the Pharisees… even God! How could God care and allow her to be treated like a cow, or donkey, or dove… sold from one owner to another. She wasn’t a slave, and she was going to enjoy her body by giving it to someone of her choice. It was most certainly an act of angry rebellion.

As Corin stood motionless beneath the heavy stone archway, Shayna slid the covering off her head and slowly removed her tunica until her body could be seen through the thin garment underneath. Slowly, Corin walked towards the doorway, removed his helmet with one hand and slid his other around her waist, lowering his mouth to her upraised lips and kissed her deeply. Things progressed quickly now. Shayna led Corin towards her bedroom all the while helping him shrug out of his armor, scattering the pieces in a line from the back door to the bedroom.

While deeply engrossed in their passion, neither Shayna nor Corin heard the scraping of boots against the rock wall just outside the window of the bedroom. Nor did they see the eyes peering through watching their writhing bodies. Dropping to the ground, the man turned to a large group of religious leaders, “They are in the act. Let’s go.”

A group of about 20 men strode resolutely to the stately front door of the home, lifted a wooden battering ram and smashed the door open. Dropping the ram just inside the door, the men ran towards the bedroom, scrambled through the cloth covering the entrance and were just in time to see Corin sprint to his dagger lying across the room. Shayna reached for a covering although there were none on the bed or in plain view.

The eldest man of the 20, and the one obviously in charge, shouted, “There’s no need for violence, Centurion. We aren’t here for you…” To another of his group, the eldest commanded, “Stay here with him and explain to him our offer, Joshua…”

Shayna rushed towards a corner of the room hoping to roll her body into it so as not to reveal her intimacies to the mob, but before she could reach it, four rough hands grabbed her. Lifting her up slightly off the floor, they half-carried, half-dragged her across the stone floor of the bedroom. Shayna screamed and tried to look towards Corin, pleading for help, but he was in an intense conversation with another leader of the mob. Continuing to rush out of the house, the group stopped outside the smashed front door of the house for a moment. The two men holding a naked Shayna thrust her onto the ground in the middle of the mob. She was surrounded by a sea of angry, leering faces staring down at her and obviously enjoying her naked terror. Their leader reached into a pile of rocks next to a piece of the splintered door and picked up a stone about the size of Shayna’s head.

“We are taking you to the carpenter, adulteress. We will kill three birds with many stones… We are going to expose the Nazarene’s lies once and for all, give you what your adultery deserves, and take from that traitor, Yosef, his prized possession. Let’s go. The carpenter is in the Temple courtyard spreading his insanity.”

The rough hands once again snatched Shayna from the ground and shoved her ahead of the mob with such force that she fell at the bottom of the steps headed up towards the Temple mount. The group moved quickly, usually carrying Shayna with hands pinching and prodding her as she struggled to protect herself. As they progressed up the hill, their number grew as people followed to watch the hideous show.

Shayna could hardly think while the mob pressed forward. She was in shock. All she could really make out were the stones in the hands of her captives.

Stones…

She had always loved stones as a child…

Stones flying from the sling of David and crashing into the giant.

Stones taken from the dry river bed and then piled on the shore of the promised land after Jehovah had made the way for Joshua and Israel’s children after 40 years wandering in the desert.

Stones stained with blood from a ram found in a thicket after Jehovah stayed the hand of Abraham from taking the life of his son, Isaac.

Stones…

she had always liked stones….

The noise and edge of the mob reached the Temple courtyard before Shayna did. The carpenter was seated among a crowd of people teaching them about “His Father.” Hearing the commotion, The Teacher slowly stood and watched the faces of the mob as they approached. Once the leaders of the mob stepped into the courtyard, they held Shayna by the arms and shoved her along in front of them, causing her to skin her feet and trip and fall, scraping the side of her leg and elbow upon which she landed. Grabbing her hair with one hand and the scraped elbow with the other, the leader stood her up and forced her to stand fully erect with her hands to her sides within a few yards of the Teacher.

“Teacher,” the leader loudly addressed the crowd, more so than the Teacher,“ this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

As the leader spoke, the Teacher looked into the faces of the mob, but never looked at Shayna as she stood with tears streaming down her face, chin quivering, and eyes staring straight ahead. Finally, the Teacher knelt down and began to write in the sand. The act drew the attention directly to the Teacher. People began to press in, stones in hand, trying to see what was being written in the sand. With each separate drawing, a set of eyes would widen in surprise, as if a deep personal secret were being revealed. The eyes would then begin to glaze over, as if once again trying to hide from the truth of their own actions. All-the-while, holding stubbornly to the stones at their sides.

The leader finally broke the trance the mob seemed to be in and began to fire religious questions at the Teacher. Finally, the Teacher slowly rose and once again looked into the eyes of each member of the mob, and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again, he stooped down and continued to write in the dust.

The crowd quieted…

One by one, stones began to fall…

Feet scuffed through the dust as people left…

Finally…

Stones on the ground…

Silence…

The Teacher reaches out and takes up a stone…

Looks at the stone and stands…

Then looks straight into Shayna’s eyes…

“Woman, where are they?” He smiles with his eyes… “Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” Shayna softly says.

The Teacher reaches out one hand, takes Shayna’s hand, places the stone into her palm, and closes her fingers around it with his other hand.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” he slightly smiles and then says, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Shayna turns and his hands drop her hand as she begins to walk away. Feeling the weight in her hand, she raises it to view the stone, her stone. And she remembers,

“I always liked stones…”

(An expanded version of John 8:1-11)

When Fairness Fails…

Earlier this morning, I was talking  to a buddy at Starbuck’s about the difference between fairness and justice. I suppose everyone of us has lived through circumstances we deemed to be unfair. Something inside of us chafes at a self-perceived inequality which we feel we have experienced, and we look outside of ourselves for “someone” to right the wrong we feel we have received.

I suppose you might be wondering why such a topic would come up during a cup of Pike at Starbucks… My first response to that would be to say:

“Where better to talk about deeper topics than at a coffee shop?”

My second response is a little longer…

I had a difficult week last week. I “stepped in a puddle” of sorts. “Stepped in a puddle” is the phrase I use to describe an unexpected event which is associated with divorce. As you begin to rebuild your life after divorce, there are often events which take you back emotionally to the grief of losing some aspect of “family” and “home”. 

You lose a little ground…

Your foot gets wet…

And you have to let it dry…

I don’t miss the relationship, honestly, because I now see how much it didn’t work for either of us. (It seems that my former wife is living the life she wants, and I hope it works for them. I truly want them to be happy.)  However, the dreams and expectations associated with family:

Holidays…

Time together…

Shared humor…

Secret language…

Shared heritage…

These are things that seem lost, but whose loss you don’t expect. My kids are older, beginning to live their own lives, and I fully expect that…intellectually… but I do miss the everyday interaction.

I can hear the pat answers/responses to my words in some of your minds, and understand that these are things I have some ability to keep in place… and you’re right. However,

 life gets complicated, 

 schedules don’t always synch,

 money is short,

choices are made which must be made when parents live in two different places.

So the subject of fairness must be broached…. over and over and over again.

We talk about this in the divorce support group I facilitate. Although I am the contact person for the group, it really is a joint effort in getting healthier. It is important for me to share my experience not only to help others understand that their pain is normal, and they aren’t alone in it; but it also is important for me to receive understanding and caring from them.

Ok…. so…. back to justice versus fairness…

Before the conversation with my friend, I had been reading the story Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16, about a landowner/farmer who needed help in his vineyard:

“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

“Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

 “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’

 “They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’

  “He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

 “When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’

 “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

 “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

 “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” The Message

The first thing that jumps out at me is how unfair the landowner must have seemed to the first workers. Their attitude is very similar to the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son, which Jesus also told. They had worked hard all day and accomplished what they deemed to be expected of them, yet the value of their work seemed to be disrespected and devalued by the landowner, because he had chosen to pay the same wage to those who had worked a much shorter time. So they became ungrateful for the job they had been given, and the wage they received which had been promised. How different must their attitude have been at the beginning of the day when they had been standing around looking for someone to hire them?

What changed for them?

What changed IN them?

The second thing I notice is how many times the landowner returns to the square, looking for workers. What seems to be his priority: giving more workers jobs?  Or getting the work done in his vineyard? How did the priorities of the landowner clash with the priorities of the workers? Did the generous action of the landowner to the later workers  change due to the response of the earlier workers?

I expect there are many times when I want my expectations for the fairness of life to be the measure by which God treats other people. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see how graciously God acts towards others whose life seems to be easier than mine. It doesn’t feel fair.

The third observation I make in the story, is really a question:

Why were the people still in the square so late in the day?

What was their experience?

Actually, the landowner asks them the same question:

“‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?'”

Their response is interesting:

‘Because no one hired us.'”

Why would nobody hire them?

Were they lounging around in the hammock at home, because they had been drunk all night last night?

Were they unable to find babysitters?

Were they physically disabled?

Were they of a different race than the rest of the community?

Whatever the personal stories of these late workers, I am amazed that they were still in the square so late in the day. How could they still hope that someone would hire them so late in the day?

After standing around so long…

When others were taken before them…

And the sun in the sky was beginning to sink…

What miracle of hope stayed alive in their hearts that SOMONE had work for them TODAY!

Today, they would still work to feed themselves and their families…

Today mercy would meet them in the square and reward their meager efforts with generosity…

This story is a beautiful example of how the Justice of God and the Mercy of God live in tension with each other. They are tied together.

What is necessary for me, is to receive God’s gifts with gratitude, no matter how those gifts appear at the moment, or how they compare with the gifts others have receved. I can make a determination to choose this attitude only by ruthless trust (Thanks for the wonderful phrase, Brennan…) in the goodness of God.

God’s Justice is always surrounded by grace…