Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Problem of Evil

For as long as I've considered myself a Christian, which has been the vast majority of my life, I've struggled with what we do with evil. I don't mean the evening news kind of stuff. Although, that too is problematic. No, I mean the run of the mill tough stuff that many of us endure in our lifetimes. The crap of life that seems to go on unabated for some people.

It seems some days to be all around me. Children who have been battered or molested or just plain not cared for. Women who are manipulated, controlled and mistreated. Parents whose children have gone astray somehow. I still don't know what it all means in the grand scheme of things. I cannot reconcile what I see with who I believe God to be. It seems incongruent.

Sometimes it doesn't bother me. The not knowing of this life. Why *this* child? Logically I know this kid didn't do anything so terrible to deserve what has happened to him or why? And where is God in the mess that exists? I don't have soft, easy answers to that. At times I'm able to live in the not knowing.

But on other days I become overwhelmed with it all. Why doesn't really sum up my questions...although it seems a good place to start at times. It's not as simple as why do bad things happen? It's more specific than that. Why do bad things happen to people if God is so good? If I believe that there is this Being/Light/Source that embodies love - where is the divine intervention to stop this madness?

And if God doesn't intervene ever, then what's the point in all this? Surely God is God. He/She can step in. After all who wants to be Superman if he can't really fly? If God is God, and therefore always present, always able to aid us in the time of fear and trembling, what's the hold up?

I think these sorts of ideas started bouncing around in my brain years ago - when I was a kid. God, the Church, was my refuge. I remember sitting in the balcony of the sanctuary in the quiet of a night. I was not able to speak most of what I thought about back then. It was too much, it overwhelmed my sensibilities. But being in that place, I felt some sort of Presence. It just seemed things would be ok. In the end. Looking back though, things weren't ok.

I recently heard God compared to a father who tries to shelter his child. During the analogy the speaker talked about how perhaps in our most terrified moments, God is there holding us. He stopped just short of suggesting that God is ok with our being terrified, because he gets to be the one to carry us through those times. These sentiments disturb me on some very fundamental level. If my darkest hour was God's greatest hour...well that seems more than just a little sick to me. I would compare it to taking one of my children into a horrific place just so I could protect them from the worst of the horror. No, I hope that's not how the story ends.

In my darkest moments, I still believe God exists, that He is present. Perhaps the painful realization I'm coming to lately is that I don't trust God very much in those moments. Such a realization shakes me up and springs tears to my eyes. I want to trust God, but sometimes I have to wonder. Does He know how much it hurts? Why didn't He/doesn't He intervene? While the image of a parent holding his child close to try and protect and love him is of sentimental value to me as a mother, I have a hard time being in that picture. I have a hard time being the child in that picture. I'm not certain how that looks or feels. It certainly strikes some fear in my heart. The out-of-controlness that such an idea evokes is terrifying to me.

As I sat today with a young boy whose heart is hurting, I recalled a scene in Forrest Gump where the young girl kneels in the corn field and prays, "Dear God, make me bird, so I can fly far, far away from here" over and over. As Forrest notes, "God didn't make Jenny a bird." No, Jenny endured sexual and physical abuse by her father. And as a result, Jenny was pretty screwed up. It took the whole rest of her life to figure out how to undo the damage done to her.

Here I sit at age 35. And I wonder if I'm any closer to understanding me, God, God and me than I was at 25 or 15 or 5. I hope so. But still I'm plagued by the doubts of my childhood. And maybe if I had chosen another line of work...I could forget all the bad things that happen to the least of these. Unfortunately I'm slapped in the face with the realities of ugly human behavior on a very regular basis. Why didn't God rescue me? Where is the redemption? If the word "redeem" means "to make worthwhile" - how is that possible? How can any of those experiences be made worthwhile? It reminds me of my days spent in evangelical land where we were told that "everything happens for a reason" and "if you just believe the right stuff, God will bless you." I always wanted to stand up and heckle the guy spouting this crap. "Really?! Everything happens for a reason? Let's start with the Holocaust and work our way up to today."

I'm still uncertain what to say to these kids. The ones who look at me with tear-stained faces and ask "Why?" I'm not certain what to tell myself in the dark nights, when my heart hurts from the memories I carry deep in my soul. I'm tempted to say, have a little faith. It will be ok.

But I worry about what I will say when it's not ok.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


We are such mysterious creatures. All of us. Our love, our hurt is all so intense.

A few days ago I was unkind to a friend. I'm not sure why exactly. One minute I was laughing at something he said, and then next moment I was rude, abrasive, abrupt. I can't say I feel horribly about it, but I do wonder what my motivation was. Why this friend? In this moment? I remain unconvinced it was random on my part, but still I'm unsure what I was thinking. I didn't apologize directly, but certainly his skin is thicker than mine, and we have moved on past the experience. Whatever forgiveness I needed from him, I received, and we remain good friends...we enjoy one another. Still my words hurt him. Our story includes that experience.

I had a particularly frustrating mediation this week. After two very successful ones, where walls came down and the transformation was lovely, this group wasn't having it.

As I listened, really listened to what was not being said, I could hear the anger and bitterness these two people had for one another and for the situation they were in. Then I heard it...the underlying thing in every one of these situations...the hurt, pain, sorrow, the out-of-control-ness of it all. Sometimes in that moment, I'm able to speak words that make sense, that speak to people's hearts. For some reason, I didn't have the words this time. I tried, but they were not able to hear me just yet. When I felt they could not hear me, I felt tension set in for me. My voice was getting louder, I was becoming more abrasive. I think I was thinking if they would just *listen* to me, I could make them understand. I could fix their problems.

I'm continually reminded, in the midst of a two hour session with a divorcing couple, that there is very little I know about who these two people are. What I am observing is who they are allowing me to see. I am perceiving them at a crisis moment for them. Fair or not, it is the moment my life intersects with theirs. I've discovered that I have very little time to get to the heart of the matter. If I can't identify where the source of their pain or anger or guilt lies, then I'm not likely to get very far in the mediation. Even if I can get to the root, it is not always so easy to pull it extract it from the soil that is their life. And perhaps that's not my function. My real role is to help them to see for just a moment why it makes more sense to work through their issues with one another rather than to continue to hide them from the light of day. I was not able to do my job in the mediation, I couldn't get to that moment of transformation. I'm always disappointed when that happens. I hope for the best.

On the heels of my messy mediation, I was by and large an observer in a group this weekend. This group is attempting to be centered on God, the Source, the Light, Jesus. The group is struggling with change, the potential for growth and forward momentum.

My history in this community is both a great story of loving relationships and also one with some disappointments. It didn't take me long to recognize some of the same issues we have everywhere else in life existed in this space, with the people here. The honeymoon ended pretty quickly. Fairly early on in my attending this church, I witnessed some amount of backbiting and mean-spirited comments.

As I listened to the group talk, I was overwhelmed by the amount of hurt that seemed to be just below the surface. It felt eerily similar to a mediation to me. All of the unspoken words, the untapped emotions, the bubbling just below the surface. Clearly these folks have history that I'm unaware of. I feel that way in every mediation I work on. The difference - there are several people within this group I care deeply for. I consider them friends, perhaps even family. I know parts of their stories. So to see their hurt...well it hurt me. I don't know how they got here, but it is evident how it is impacting their current level of functioning with one another. I was so overwhelmed by it at one point, that I escaped to the sanctuary of the church for 10 minutes to think, pray, pause. As I sat there the thought that occurred to me was, "How did we get here?" As a church, as a people, as followers of Jesus.

There is a song by Rich Mullins I've never really fully appreciated that has a line in it that says, "Jesus, write me into your story. Whisper it to me. And let me know...I'm yours." That's all I think we can hope for. As a a people. We hope to be part of the story. Our hurt, our love, our hope. I recognize that hurt is a part of life. And mostly it comes back to knowing we are still loved, still cared for, still valued. And that is what appears to be missing.

Similar to the mediations I work on with dysfunctional families, this group seems to have trust issues. There doesn't seem to be a common story uniting them, at least not all the time. In the case of the church, the common story is Jesus - the man, the intense love, the invitation to participate in his body and his blood. Perhaps thinking that such a group can exist is pie in the sky. Afterall the church hasn't exactly lived up to the highest standards in the last few thousand years.

Still I was left feeling sad. Not because the group wasn't able to overcome their differences, but because I see my own sadness reflected in theirs. The pain I saw in the faces and words left unsaid reminded me of how hard it is for us to let the walls down. Even in the safest of places, we still hold something back. We still can't quite allow our hurt to be brought out in the open. I know that difficulty. There is still so much I cannot say, cannot express for fear of being judged.

At the end of the day, I hope for this group, as I hope for myself. That as I grow into more and more the person I was created to be perhaps I will be able to see my own hurt as a chance. An opportunity to connect more deeply with others. And if I'm really able to live this life, the one I know was given to me to live...then when others are hurting I will not be able to turn a blind eye to their pain. I will have the courage to see their hurt for what it is...and respond by connecting to their story, our story. Jesus, write me into your story. Whisper it to me. And remind us, we are yours.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Message

Today I watched two very different scenes unfold around my son. I recalled again what I hope my son takes from our life together. I hope that I can continue to surround him with people who love him, who value him simply because he is on this earth.

My son is going through what I would call a "testing boundaries" phase. I would call it the "terrible 2's" - but he is now 4, so that doesn't fit exactly. At 2 he was a sweet, loveable little guy. This phase, well it likely began some months ago, and continues on. He challenges authority. He pushes me to find out where the lines are, and add that to his ordinary level of energy, and well, he wears me out somedays. He is a very different animal from his sister. He is stubborn. And I don't mean the ordinary stubborn-ness that little kids have. I mean he is obstinate. When he doesn't get what he wants, he can hold a grudge like no other kid I have known. He will argue with me. He will cry, whine and generally make life miserable for those around him when life is not progressing as he hoped.

I must admit to having lost my patience more than once or twice with him. Overall, he is and remains my child at heart. While he is stubborn, I can see now as an adult how stubborn-ness is at times a gift. While he is testing boundaries, I can see the importance of being consistent with him. Still, I don't know if it's because he had health issues early on...but he gets away with more than his sister did at this age. Or perhaps she just didn't push the envelope the way he does. I'm not certain. Regardless, I am not oblivious to the fact that he can be a challenging child.

Today I was reminded in a direct way what I hope for him to get from the adults in his life. When I was child I was taught that adults were by and large infallible. Certainly we were not to question the adults in our lives. If they made a mistake, well, I was taught to overlook that fact, and to not expect an amends. I grew up in a household, and in a larger family, that was not amused by children. We were typically to be seen and not heard, and we were taught that until we were grown up, we had little to nothing to offer the family. It's strange that I would wind up the person I am today. The way I parent is drastically different than the way I was taught.

When we walked into church this morning, we were greeted by the people we ordinarily see. My son was excited to be there. Sunday school was starting up again for the year, and as he put it, "he missed Ms. Ruth" - his teacher. As he hugged the adults we saw walking in, he was swept up in the arms of our priest. He was happy to see him as well. When he finished with sunday school and he came into the service, towards the end, he was fairly calm and cooperative with me. As we went forward to accept the Eucharist, he became a little bit of a tyrant. He was pulling, pushing and generally acting out. When it came his turn to take the bread, he held his hand out. One hand contained gum he had just taken out of his mouth in preparation for communion, and the other hand he used to take the bread from our priest. Unfortunately, at 4, his communication skills are lacking at times, and because I didn't understand what was happening either, our priest asked him if he was going to eat the bread. I don't think my son knew how to respond, so he was quiet. The ordinary course of events at the altar is that he accepts the bread from the celebrant, and then dips it into the cup of wine when the chalice bearer comes to us shortly thereafter. However in a comedy of errors, our priest ended up taking the bread back from him, misunderstanding his intent.

As we walked back to our pew, my son leaned close to me and said quietly, "Father Steve is mean." I couldn't help but giggle a little bit. After the service, I tried to explain that our priest didn't understand, that he had just made a mistake. Regardless, the boy was angry. After church, I explained to my priest what had happened. A few minutes later he appeared smiling with a giant wafer to give to my son. I didn't get to witness him giving it to him, but a bit later this child of mine came running to me and told me, "Father Steve gave me the BIG bread." He was happy. Pleased with himself and with our priest. If I was a therapist, I would say his feelings were validated.

Later on in the day, I took my kids to an art fair and to play in a nearby park. My son ran, jumped and rode his scooter around the large park. We were joined by a friend and her infant daughter. Both of my kids had fun, but by the time we got back to our car late in the afternoon, my baby was worn out. But ever the ball of energy, he managed to run to the car and hop in his car seat. On the way to a relative's house, he fell asleep in the back seat. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at her home. I had to wake my child up as we got out of the car to see her. He good-naturedly greeted her and began to do what he ordinarily does at her house - color and play with stickers. As he played, he chatted about his favorite stickers, favorite colors and what he had been doing that day. While he was still tired, he was fairly happy.

I should explain that in the past several months, I have decreased my visits to this relative's home. While I used to take my kids there fairly often, I have found for my own sanity, it is better if we go less often. Everything my kids do and everything they don't do is scrutinized. It seems they notice this on some level, and seem to act badly more so than usual when we're there. I can't explain the phenomenon, but it seems to hold true most days when we're there.

As if on cue, my son began getting an attitude. I don't know why. Maybe it was just his time to act out, or maybe he was getting overly tired. Perhaps he was even getting hungry. I don't have a great explanation for it. But it started. He began getting mouthy and not being cooperative about picking up, listening, etc. Before I could respond to his unruly behavior, my relative said to him pointedly, "You don't know how to act right at home, but you won't act that way here." I must've looked slightly taken aback. Because then she turned to me and said something about how I didn't know how to handle my children. This should have been my cue. I likely should've gathered the kids up at that point and gotten ready to go home. But, trying to remain polite, I scolded my child and turned back to what I had been doing. Of course because he is my son, he was not going to be outdone. He stomped across the floor into the kitchen. This time my relative scolded him and put him in time out. I didn't find this punishment inappropriate, although I will say I don't find time out to be particularly effective with my son. Still, I held my tongue. When his time out was through, I gathered up our things and we ended the visit. As we went to the car, my family member doted on my daughter (who had been well-behaved this visit) and didn't speak to my son. The message to him was loud and clear. And my own face reddened slightly at the way she was treating my child. She is one of the older generation in my family (those over 50) who still believe children should be seen and not heard. I question to some degree why I subject my kids to these folks, but for whatever reason I cannot entirely cut the biological cord that connects me to them.

As I drove home, I thought over these two seemingly unrelated incidents of my son's encounter with adults that are not me. I wondered what the experiences looked like to my child. If I could read the thoughts playing in his head, what would they tell me about who my son is growing up to be? Of all the influences that I allow him to experience, which ones are the ones that stick with him? It didn't take me too long to know.

This evening as we prepared for bed, I asked him to say prayers. As he went through his litany of "thank you for ... and God bless...." I reminded him to thank God for our family and friends. He did, not by name as he sometimes does when he wants prayers to last awhile, but as a group. Then just before his "Amen" he whispered quietly, "and thank you for Father Steve" and he smiled at me.

Monday, September 6, 2010

My church

This weekend I traveled south to Nashville and the surrounding area for the holiday. The kids and I were going to visit my old college roommate and her family. I hadn't seen her family in quite awhile, and I was looking forward to getting away.

On Sunday morning, I attended church at St. Ann's Episcopal in Nashville. I had wanted to attend because my roommate's brother attends and is very active there. I arrived a few minutes late and quickly took my place in the back of the church. It was a typical service in my tradition. Liturgy, hymns, a short sermon. The norm for me. I can recite most of the liturgy without looking at it, and there is something comforting about that to me. I can really consider the words, and their meaning changes for me over time. What might be particularly poignant one Sunday is a blur a year later.

As I looked around me, there was a fairly good cross-section of society in attendance. Straight, gay, young, old, a few black folks, a guy robed that I discovered later was a Franciscan brother. People were friendly without being intrusive. I was greeted after the service by the rector of the parish among other people. When I explained that I was just passing through, I still received a warm reception.

As we prepared to recite the prayers of the people, the woman leading asked us to pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters who would observe Rosh Hoshanah this coming week as well as our Muslim brothers and sisters who would be observing the end of Ramadan this coming week. I was struck by this simple gesture. And I was moved by it. This is my family, this is my church.

As Episcopalians, we are people who pray for others regardless of the religious, political and sociological differences that so often divide us. We prayed for the unity of the church universal. We prayed for those who are alone. We prayed for the sick and the healers alike. We prayed for justice and peace for all people.

I've always been drawn to the liturgical church. There is something about the order and sameness of it that comforts me and makes me feel at home no matter where I worship. But more than that, I am drawn to the Episocopal church because of scenes just like the one that played out in front of me Sunday. A group of 80 or so folks who gathered for an hour to be together in worship and in life. People who care about one another and the broader world. I was encouraged by them and their commitment to those around them. Part of their work involved a homeless shelter that was getting ready to open its doors in the coming week.

I am not an ideological person in a lot of ways. I would never profess that my way is the only way, or that the Episcopal church has the corner on the truth market. I don't pledge my allegiance to much. I don't belong to a political party. I'm not ordinarily a follower of much. Not to be glib, but don't think most movements are completely correct about any one thing. While saying all that, I don't mean to indicate I don't take seriously our political dilemmas and our moral and religious crises. Certainly I take them too seriously most days. And while I'm an American who typically votes for Democrats and consider myself a Christian, I don't think any of those groups (Americans, Democrats, Christians) get it right all the time.

Perhaps it's not that I don't take things seriously enough, but rather that I take my loyalty a bit too seriously. For me too offer my support, my unabashed, undying allegiance, I have to believe that on some level those in charge of that body/institution/country have it right. And quite honestly that doesn't happen very often. I mistrust most institutions. And I think rightfully so in most ways.

Having said all that, I was proud of my church Sunday. Pleased to be an Episcopalian. Happy that my children get to be part of this body of believers. And loyal to the values we talk about, that we live out everyday. We love each other and we love the world. The rest can be argued, debated and worked out later. If we start there, that regardless of your creed, color, sexual orienation, gender (name all the other things that separate us)...we will love you, we will accept you where you are and we will welcome you to worship with us and to live in community with us. Certainly that's the way I read the gospel (the "Good News") of Jesus. And it makes me proud to be among those who are doing their best to live out this good news.