Failing Forgiveness

Recently, I deeply hurt a dear family member. My well rehearsed self-defensiveness easily shifts into excuses and rationalization: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” A reflexive, limp, “I’m sorry!” “Here’s what I really meant…” In the back of my mind I also sprinkle in a good dose of “Oh, get over it!” “You’re too thin-skinned.” “You misinterpreted what I meant.”

I easily nurse grudges or smugly assert my innocence, all with a heavy dose of moral superiority. “Me? Why I would never willingly hurt anyone!” This has been my default position for most of my 65 years.

And, it doesn’t work! In fact, it isolates and hardens us. Ultimately, it turns us bitter — the sort of arrogant curmudgeons no one wants to be around. Even we discover we are not in very good company when we increasingly find ourselves alone.

Coincidental to my recent family incident the University of Minnesota was going through a major publicity nightmare and scandal. The Athletic Director had been forced to resign after sexually harassing two colleagues at a mid-summer gathering of top university administrators. Yes, alcohol was involved. Yes, his “excuse” was inept. Yes his “apology” was predictably lame.

Apologies must be about the person who has been hurt, not about protecting our backsides or rehabilitating our reputations! We concoct an amazing assortment of avoidance strategies which are really more about self-forgiveness. According to a really fine op-ed in the Star Tribune about the dismal response by Mr Teague and University leadership, such self-defensiveness sabotages any hope for recovery or rehabilitation.

James E. Lukaszewski’s op-ed convincingly describes the essential pieces of an effective apology:

  • Regret — an explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  • Responsibility — an unconditional declarative acceptance and recognition that my wrongful behavior and acknowledgment that there is no excuse for it.
  • Restitution — an offer of help or assistance to the person I have hurt, followed up by action beyond “I’m sorry,” and conduct that takes responsibility to make the situation right.
  • Repentance — explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused pain and suffering for which I am genuinely sorry; language that recognizes that I cause serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage.
  • Direct request for forgiveness — “I was wrong, I hurt you and I ask you to forgive me.”

Reading these words admonishing the Athletic Director and University felt like red-hot coals being heaped on my head. Despite my self-righteous efforts to keep the need for an effective apology theoretical and about others, I felt exposed and incriminated.

My gut was confirming what Lukaszewski claimed.  Admitting that I have done something hurtful and requesting forgiveness is damn hard! Maybe that’s why it is so rarely done, at least with sincerity and effectiveness. Though 65 years of moral evasiveness have taught me the same truth, the hottest coal of all was his final admonition: “Skip even one step, and you simply fail.”

You fail! Not just in this instance. Not just with this family member, neighbor, colleague. We fail — as human beings, the kind of people others want to be around, the sort of person I’d want to be with when I’m all alone!

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The August 10, 2015 op-ed in the Star Tribune is available [here]. In his essay, James E. Lukaszewski credits his source as The Five Languages of Apology, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

Put On Your Chicken Wire

A good friend knew our conversation would not be easy. The topic she wanted to discuss was difficult, potentially painful. She did not want to be confrontational — rather, she intended to play fair!

She said, “Time to put on you chicken wire.”

“What?” I said, not having a clue what she meant.

“Put on your chicken wire! You have a right to feel safe, protected and maintain your integrity. But you need to hear what I have to say. Most of us throw up our defenses, walling off any meaningful dialogue. Putting on your chicken wire allows you to feel safe — it will also help you take in what I have to say.”

Ironically, Jane’s approach actually made me eager to engage a tough conversation about difficult stuff. Right from the get-go I felt respected, empowered and willing to look at my culpability without reacting defensively. We both began porous rather than hardened.

The conversation that ensued was animated, emotional and true testimony to an enduring friendship. It concluded with an honest embrace and a commitment to touch base again in a couple of weeks.

Now, days later, I still walk around with my chicken wire in tact. It may just stay as part of my permanent attire. It’s a great way to engage others from a position of safety, integrity. Yesterday — with chicken wire securely in place — I negotiated the always challenging (for me, at least) weekend checkout lines a Costco. Chicken wire has become my new necessity for negotiating life’s inevitable conflicts.

First of all, Jane’s approach was strong, appropriate and inspired. The part of her approach which only became apparent in the conversation is that chicken wire required Jane to “give” what she had to say in pieces that would fit through my open spaces. It had to come in sizes I could take in. Same from my side. I had to say what I had to give in pieces that fit her capacity to receive as well.

Who knew!?! Chicken wire! Solution to innumerable human challenges. One of life’s enduring necessities.

Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

Grandparenting

Grandmas — and sometime grandpas — have to be as good as it gets this side of heaven. Yesterday a friend’s account of her time with her grandkids at the shore drew me back to fond memories of my own Grandma Wieseler.

Theresa had just returned from a week with her seven grandchildren. The kids are scattered all over the U.S. so she gathered them at their house on the shore for a week of family togetherness. Yes, this would provide terrific bonding-time for the cousins. But Theresa was also indulging her own deep affection for them — there was plenty of healthy self-interested “grand-mothering” in her plan as well.

Although she was grateful that one parent was present at the beginning and a different Mom came at the end of the week, Theresa mostly wanted the grandkids to herself. Her rationale will be obvious to all of you who have grandkids. It was an Aha! moment for me! She explained, “Kids are just different when parents aren’t around. We have more fun and get to know each other so much better when they are out of the picture.”

Of course, some aspects of being an uncle — and now grand-uncle — prepared me to understand what Theresa was saying. But I also recognized she was speaking of a deep, intimate bond that I will never know. All the more reason to treasure the enduring love my siblings and I experienced with our Grandma Wieseler.

Perhaps the difference comes down to the necessary and appropriate roles parents must play. They need to discipline, proscribe, direct and say “no” as often as “yes.” Grandparents are free of responsibility to be that kind of authority figure. Grandparents are allowed to be much more about love, pure and simple!

Theresa and I mused a bit about all this. Then we wondered whether our experience of God is more like a Grandma or like a parent. Hmmm! Of course, we knew which we wanted it to be. But really, which is it? This seems pretty important for Christians to figure out. Jesus, after all, taught us to call God “Father”, abba, papa.

I have long claimed that my first and best introduction to God was my Grandma Wieseler. She was unconditional love personified. Yes there is a need for discipline, proscriptions, direction and “no” in the practice of our faith. But that’s early on, when we are children. We are meant to grow-up. Isn’t that the point of good parenting?

One day, some of us even become grandparents — in this, God is pleased!

Get Smart

All of us have been in situations where we shake our heads and ask, “How’d they know that?”  Some people just “get it” before the rest of us catch on.  People often think I’m smarter than I really am.  Truth is, I’ve just had opportunities to hang around a lot of people smarter than me.

That, and my hope to catch a few tips, drew my attention to something Shana Lebowitz, Strategy reporter for Business Insider, posted on the World Economic Forum blog. [link]. Maybe if more of us knew what smart people do, and did more of that ourselves, we’d all make smarter decisions.

With that hope, here are the qualities that nearly all super smart people share:

1. They’re highly adaptable. They remain flexible and are able to thrive in different settings.

2. They understand how much they don’t know. Intelligent people aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know. They see this as an opportunity to learn.

3. They have insatiable curiosity. Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

4. They ask good questions. Intelligent people know that asking thought-provoking questions is just as important as providing answers. That’s especially important when old answers (old wine-skins?) don’t answer new questions.

5. They’re sensitive to other people’s experiences. Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others and acting in a way that is sensitive to those needs, is a core component of emotional intelligence. They listen well!

6. They’re open-minded. Smart people don’t close themselves off to new ideas, opportunities or alternative solutions.

7. They’re skeptical. This goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness. The key is being willing to consider new ideas as long as they’re backed by supporting evidence.

Okay, Kneading Bread is a blog about spirituality. So posting these seven traits of really smart people comes with an ulterior motive. What does “being smart” have to do with our spirituality? How do thinking-people link these traits with our religious beliefs? What do they suggest about a mature faith?

I won’t be so presumptuous as to say what they should mean for your spirituality. I intend only to “ask good questions.” I trust each and all of us will remain curious, open-minded and admit what we don’t know.

All I will hazard to suggest is that we be really, really skeptical of any leader, community or religion that doesn’t want us to get smarter and smarter all the time.

Suffer? Good God!

Odds are high you won’t read this post. When you discover the topic you will likely stop and hit “delete.” None of us want to face it. None of us like it. All of us wish it would disappear — but it won’t.

So we stifle it, ignore it in every way we can, pretend it isn’t lurking over our shoulder. Some of us even resort to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and anesthetize its pain.

(Now would be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to persevere to the end.)

We are going to Germany for two-weeks at the end of September. My maternal grandmother was an Irish girl from South Boston but the rest of my heritage is German. Not far below the surface throughout what we expect to be a wonderful trip will be a nagging question: How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so corrupt that it perpetrated the horrendous evil of the Holocaust?

We all wrestle with suffering — especially when it is unmerited and random. Why do some children endure such violence and misfortune when others do not? Why does Beau Biden die of brain cancer at age 46? Tornados destroy entire communities and sometimes randomly kill neighbors. None of this makes sense!

I’ve wrestled with the topic of suffering but more often than not simply ignore it and distract myself with my privileged life and bask in my own relative good fortune. Yet the reality nags, taunts and festers at the edges of my consciousness.

Maybe this explains why so many of us shun public transportation. A simple bus ride across downtown Minneapolis exposes a human side of life we would rather ignore or deny — like choosing not to read this post any further and summarily hitting “delete”.  But, don’t!

Last week the New York Times offered a rare but really well thought-out op-ed [link] on the topic of suffering. Titled The Value of Suffering, author Pico Iyer will appeal even to the many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Too often faith-leaders retreat into conspicuous silence on the question of how any could possibly profess the existence of a good God in the face of such unmerited and seemingly unmitigated suffering. A rare exception is Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who courageously wrestled with the challenge the horrific Asian tsunami presented to Christian assertion of God’s benevolence. [link]

What gives me courage to finally take on this bedeviling topic, though it regularly gnaws at the edges of my consciousness, was a post today on Richard Rohr’s blog. [link]

His is not the final word — if by that we mean some rational explanation that dismisses all questions or doubt. However, it’s about as good as it gets. Rohr gets about as close as anyone to expressing our “truth” in a way that thinking-people will comprehend.

If you have persevered this far, I certainly hope you are curious enough to check-out the links to the New York Times and Rowan Williams articles above. Even if you choose not to check out these other sites, rest assured it doesn’t get much better than this from Richard Rohr:

Both [saints] Francis and Clare … let go of all fear of suffering; all need for power, prestige and possessions; any need for their small self to be important; and came to know something essential–who they really were in God and thus who they really were. Their house was then built on “bedrock,” as Jesus says (Matthew 7:24).

Such an ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering, and various forms of poverty, since the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death. If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power (Romans 8:28).

Such a counterintuitive insight surely explains why these two medieval dropouts–Francis and Clare–tried to invite us all into their happy run downward, to that place of “poverty” where all humanity finally dwells anyway. They voluntarily leapt into the very fire from which most of us are trying to escape, with total trust that Jesus’ way of the cross could not, and would not, be wrong. They trusted that his way was the way of solidarity and communion with the larger world, which is indeed passing away and dying. By God’s grace, they could trust the eventual passing of all things, and where it was passing to. They did not wait for liberation later–after death–but grasped it here and now.

Remember, Lest We Forget

Anniversaries are important. Most are deserving of celebration. Some are to be remembered lest we ever forget. We are approaching just such an anniversary.

On July 1, 2014 Commonweal magazine broke the story that Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis had been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians and priests. Ten men had signed affidavits filing their official complaints.

Rumors of Nienstedt’s misconduct was not news. I had heard such allegations as long as ten years ago. What made this story news was that ten men had now spoken up, telling their story and registering their complaint with officials. Once Commonweal broke the story, we learened the Archdiocese had hired a law firm in late 2013 to conduct what the Archdiocese then promised to be a full and independent investigation.

Let’s be clear, the allegations against our Archbishop were made by adult men. We are not talking about pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults. The better comparison is with disgraced Cardinal Archbishop Keith O’Brien of Scotland. At least five men – three priests, a former priest and a former seminarian – accused O’Brien of either sexually harassing them or pressuring them into sex, in allegations that went back to the 1980s.

O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He was discretely “disinvited” from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. In March 2015 it was announced that he had renounced the “rights and privileges” of his office but gets to keep his prestigious title.

Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Readers will also recall that I have called for Neinstedt’s resignation in these posts on at least three occasions.

On July 7, 2014 I wrote: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty.

We have a right to integrity and transparency. We have a right to hold those who claim positions of moral leadership to be persons worthy of emulation. We have the right to know the truth about any who claim authority to teach moral truth.

Ten official affidavits complaining of harassment and/or misconduct does not sound like behavior among “consenting adults.” We have a right to know the truth about these ten complaints and for those in authority to act appropriately.  If there is nothing to hide, then what’s there to hide?

All abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. This is true of abuse within families, schools, civic organizations or churches. What makes the allegations against our Archbishop so egregious is that he presumes to provide moral leadership and teach moral truths. Hiding behind a wall of silence and secrecy perpetuates the abuse.

This “culture” of silence and secrecy — delay strategies to bury the story, keeping a low public profile, hoping we will forget — further victimizes this Archdiocese and this community which deserves, expects and has received far better from Catholic leadership.

Peter Day, a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra, Australia recently wrote a passionate call for reform in light of the sex abuse scandal roiling his country and the whole church. He implores us to fully acknowledge what we all know — too many of our shepherds have acted like the “hired men” in John’s Gospel “who abandon the sheep when they see a wolf coming … leaving the wolves to attack and scatter the sheep.” (Jn 10: 12)

Day further exposes what we all recognize but feel powerless to change: “Underpinning this hired men culture is an all-too pervasive clericalism in which men feel set-apart, vainly pursuing the trappings of power and prestige — acting like corporate CEOs hell-bent on protecting the company brand instead of like shepherds willing to lay down their lives (and their reputations) for their sheep.”

But we are NOT powerless. We are not pawns. We are The People of God.  From half-way around the world, Peter Day expresses our local reality and our need. “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”

July 1 will be the one year anniversary of Commonweal exposing the charges made against our Archbishop. Months ago the media asked the Archdiocese about the disposition of the allegations. Archdiocesan officials admitted that the law firm had completed its work but the investigation was continuing so no further information could be shared.

July 1 is an anniversary we must not forget. Media should again ask Archdiocesan leadership. Editorial boards must clearly express the needs and expectations of the community.  Parishioners would do well to inquire of their pastors about the disposition of the charges against one for whom we pray by name at every Eucharist.  Civic leaders have a right to inquire about any who would claim high moral profile in our community.

Powers that be will want us to forget. Summer in Minnesota offers a wealth of diversions and many pleasant distractions. But, remember we must! “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”

We want, need and deserve a better shepherd. Archbishop Neinstedt, its time to do the right thing!

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The article by Peter Day is from Global Pulse Magazine [link]. This is a new journal covering stories and offering opinion from around the world on Catholic topics or issues of moral import. I am not sure whether you need a subscription to access the full story. I paid $12 for an annual subscription and eagerly recommend you consider the same.

Powerful As the Stream

Observation leads me to conclude that I am not alone in wanting to be in charge. Others seem to share my control issues as well. Yes, I like to feel important. Much to my chagrin, family and friends have plenty of evidence to counter my feelings of superiority and perfectionism.

A conversation after posting Perfection Unbound [link] last Sunday showed there was need for clarification.  You may recall that I wrote: “Despite my delusions of grandeur and flights into self-sufficiency, I’m not as special as I think nor as singular as I want to imagine. My friends and family simply know how to slip beneath my well-defended public persona.”

I then went on to suggest that too many of us easily and willingly “fall into one of religion’s most subtle and seductive pitfalls — using spirituality to comfort our egos or to validate our pre-conceived view of the world. We pervert Christianity to serve our needs rather than affirm its core assertion that salvation comes through dying to our over-sized egos.”

That generated some blow-back as well it should. Too many people walk around having been shamed into thinking too little of themselves. Abuse of power by folks who like to be in control or have an exalted sense of their own rectitude and virtue — typically an over-compensation for their own poor self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness — can really victimize other people.

I’m grateful for the blow-back because it allows for an essential clarification — between a healthy self-worth and appreciation for one’s inalienable dignity on one hand, and an unbridled individualism, trust in self-interest as a reliable moral guide and pursuit of only slightly veiled ego-gratification on the other. Here is the essential distinction: there is a huge difference between un-redeemed egos and healthy self-worth.

Here’s the rub as I see it. As I wrote on Sunday, there’s too much contemporary preoccupation with shallow, feel-good, power-of-positive-thinking “spirituality” being marketed to ego-driven consumers. Sadly, this also comes from “Christian” sources as well as pop-culture.

Virtually all world religions are unanimous in teaching that we must put our ego-selves to death! Trust me, this is very hard to do when you’re already “perfect”! None of us — again, not one of us — want to hear that.  Too often our churches don’t want to hear or teach that message either.  Rather, they maneuver to be in charge as arbitrators of “truth” and assert control by enforcing their preferred definition.

Some of the responses to Sunday’s post expanded upon and expressed better what I was struggling to say. For example, I had cited Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa’s invitation to consider pouring tea into a cup. The cup must be lower than the teapot. If the cup is not lower than the pot, the tea will not end up in the cup.

A friend generously shared another citation that offers more than enough food for thought for those of us who wrestle with our need to be in control or want to be in charge:

All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power. If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.

To this, let the Church say… AMEN!

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My friend who shared the final quote indicated it was from “Tao Te Ching: A New English Version” translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Being Taken

He approached us in the parking lot, a lanky man with short-cropped brown hair perhaps in his upper twenties. His generic tee-shirt and jeans contrasted with the strained expression on his face. Anticipating a familiar story, my brother tried to wave me off from his vantage ten feet ahead.

The young man began apologetically according to script. He had recently moved to this town in central Florida from up-north with his family. “Do you know where I can get some help? I have a job,” he protested! On script, he recounted all the people and places he’d been looking for assistance. Inclusion of the police station on his list slapped against my deeply engrained cynicism.

“I get paid on Wednesday. Please… I need food for my family.” Skepticism converged with my deep seeded need to confront the laggard. Recognizing my position of power and privilege, I indulged my need to test the man by getting him to prove to me his need. “What are the names and ages of your kids?” I asked, intending to catch him in my snare. He responded without flinching, so promptly it could not have been rehearsed.  Plausible, I had to admit.  Now it was me off-stride!

Reaching for my wallet and looking him in the eye, “I believe you!” My response was not so much cognitive or deliberative. It came less from a meeting the minds and more from the meeting of our eyes, man-to-man. What began as a random incident in a parking lot – one that could be easily dismissed – ended in human encounter.

Was I taken as a chump by this skillful panhandler? Whether I was or not misses the point 24-hours later. I remember the man, if not the precise ages and names of his children. Only today do I realize that Wednesday is the last day of the month and could well be the day he receives a paycheck. It doesn’t really matter!

The unanticipated gift this young Dad gave me – someone old enough to be his grandfather – far surpasses the monetary value of what I gave him. There was more than “need” in what he expressed. There was vulnerability that I’ve learned to disguise or rarely risk. He revealed a degree of passion in his appeal too many of us have lost. How many of us are driven by our own heart’s yearning manifest in the account of this struggling parent?

For this – if only for this reminder – I stand in this young man’s debt. Too easily I slip into a smug, unexamined gratitude for having it so much better. But, do I? Really? Is such a question even relevant once we overcome cynicism, skepticism, and fear?

Dare we risk looking at one another eye-to-eye?  Dare we not?

Lightning Rods

A quick quiz…

Name a religious symbol.

If you are Christian, I’d bet nine out of ten would say, “The cross.”

What if you are Jewish? Star of David, perhaps?

Muslim… the Crescent Moon?

How would you respond if I said, lightning rod!?!

Yesterday, Janice Anderson proposed the lightning rod as a good symbol for her “doorbell ministry” at the Basilica of St Mary as well as her work with City House. The Basilica is a large, popular urban parish in Minneapolis where she has been on the staff since 1994.

Anderson was a presenter yesterday at a retreat for people associated with City House, a ministry of “active listening” with people on the margins — including those experiencing poverty, addiction, imprisonment or being homeless.

Janice chairs the City House board. She knows of what she speaks when she proposes the lightning rod as an apt Christian symbol.  Perhaps its an apt symbol for people of all faiths!

First, she readily admits what makes her “bristle” when encountering people who have every reason in the world to lead off with a burst of anger. Here’s my paraphrase of what I heard in her story:

Presuming I am the “more privileged” in such a dialogue — and I generally am — is the other judging me?  Might their judgement be accurate and fair?

Fear quickly surfaces when I feel afraid for my safety, imagined or otherwise.

Pride threatens to rob me of a true human encounter if I fail to enter into dialogue with respect for the other’s equal human dignity.

It is so easy to remain hamstrung by my own self-image as “good” if not “beter.”

Despite the fact it is generally an illusion, I typically hold tight to my need to be “in control” of whatever happens.

You may recall or imagine encounters of your own.  Add or subtract from this list of what makes you “bristle.” I suspect responses are as numerous and particular as the people involved.

Did you know that a lightning rod does not attract the lightning? I thought it did. Rather, it just stands there as lightning randomly dances across the sky. If it happens to strike, the rod simply takes in the charge and enables the surge of energy to pass into the ground.

Like doorbell ministry and accompaniment at City House, isn’t that what we are all called to do when we encounter people who hold a grudge and are angry — whether justifiable or not?  Don’t we find ourselves in places where we are called to stand in the place of God absorbing the charge of others, grounding their anger and letting pass an aggressive first-strike?

And here is a cautious reminder — we are to be lightning rods, not pin cushions!  There’s a big difference.  Jesus was one but never the other!

As we Christians move more intimately toward Holy Week we would do well be attentive to how Jesus absorbs the surges of anger directed at him, stands his ground as aggression passes through, letting first-strikes land, putting an end to the destruction that would otherwise occur.

Perhaps, this year, it is time to look beyond the cross if it has become overly familiar and time-worn of much potency.  Attentiveness to Christ as lightning rod is probably more than enough!
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You may learn more about City House at www.city-house.org — financial support is much-needed and always appreciated.