Monday, March 30, 2009

Living water or flood waters

Friday and our weekend were spent repairing one plumbing issue after another -- all at the kitchen sink. Aside from the frustration of fixing one problem, only to find another and another, and having to make multiple hardware store trips, the comical element in our frantic endeavors won't be fully appreciated until much later.

There is also the metaphorical aspect. Maybe it's apparent because I've been studying the gospel of John recently. Flowing water goes everywhere, and I mean everywhere! Try to stop it! The problems began to arise for us during the interim when we didn't realize that there were leaks and before the repair work was completed.
Problem water is the water that is accumulating, pooling, flooding and spreading where we don't want it to go.

I remember the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Agnes in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley when I was a child. The devastation took decades to erase, and the immediate costs were tremendous -- financially, materially, and psychically. My prayers are more fervent and heartfelt for the families along the Red River in North Dakota & Minnesota because of those memories. Almost 2 years ago, my son and I stopped to visit the university where my grandfather was president for 3 1/2 decades. The campus and buildings had been badly damaged by the floodwaters from Agnes in 1972, and the city had just recently faced down the spectre of another flood. We met the current president, and Tim shared with us how surprised he'd been by the level of fear the river caused among the valley residents. My response was to recall for him the devastation and the toll it took on the people. Raw, physical pain and fear are accessible only to those who've borne the experiences. We cannot grasp it through intellectual, academic or abstract understanding; even our imagination or analogies in our own lives fall short.

We need pure, living water for life and fruit-bearing. (cf. Psalm 1) Flood waters, however, bear illness, bacteria, chemicals, waste and disease, not to mention vast quantities of mud. What isn't damaged in the heavy flow of water will be damaged by the pooling, the mold and mildew, the stagnant waste left behind. If any area of one's home or buildings is left uncleaned, undrained, or untreated, the stench will witness to it. First, there is the mud, the smell and the trash of destroyed homes everywhere and festooned in the trees, then the incredible dust when things begin to dry out. Homes needed to be gutted down to stone and framework, cleaned and rebuilt again.

The labor isn't solely physical and the cost isn't merely financial. Tragedies and trauma take their tolls on us. These memories are embodied within our very being. Ask anyone whose been through a major flood anytime in their lives to visit another flooded area, and the smell, the sights, and the pain of the victims will physically affect them and will resurrect images and memories long-since buried in more recent events. Ministering to refugees from Katrina brought back some of those memories a few years ago.

It's up to us to redeem history, just as many of the people of Fargo and Moorhead have created life in their fellowship of sandbaggers. The relationships we've formed will sustain us or let us down. We need to invest in new life, in the living water that never fails us, always sustains us, and gives new hope out of darkness. Will we build our community on the rock who is Jesus Christ, or on the shifting sands of our preferences, intellect, culture, race, ethnicity and natural inclinations? New life takes work and sacrifice, too, but the boundaries are more certain than the banks of the rivers we may live near. If we missed this flood, there will be another one. Building new life is the work of being reconciled to God and to one another. May we have the courage to take on those challenges and develop community that is eternal. If you're not familiar, yet, with Mavis Staples' album,
Have a Little Faith, check out the solid faith through injustice, hard times and troubles expressed in this album. In "God is Not Sleeping" Mavis repeats the line, "everything I have is temporary / only love is necessary." Do we act on that belief in our relationships?

Friday, March 27, 2009

mushrooms and metaphors

I've been considering how living in darkness compromises our abilities to know ourselves and to connect with one another immeasurably.

Truth and Darkness:
Proverbs 17:4 "An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives heed to a mischievous tongue."
It took years of reading Proverbs regularly, at times daily, for me to realize the import of this proverb. (Perhaps I overlooked it, as I do many verses, until that day when it fit so well, I couldn't miss it!) There are plenty of folks who think themselves savvy about making their own way through life, but who fail to recognize that the self-justification they practice regarding their own wrongdoing and lying actually blindfolds them regarding others' lies and deceit. It's as if, metaphorically speaking, we cannot blindfold ourselves about ourselves, while selectively removing the blindfold in other areas and regarding other people.

So, in a world where we define ourselves in opposition to ourselves (justifying or punishing ourselves for choices and mistakes) and in opposition to others, the darkness gets deeper by the hour. C.S. Lewis wrote in
Perelandra something that follows these lines: "There is an ignorance of evil that comes from being young. There is a greater ignorance of evil that comes from doing it, as men by sleeping lose the knowledge of sleep." (Apologies to Mr. Lewis for any paraphrase resulting from my memory!)

Charlie Rose, this evening, interviewed a pair of scientists researching sexual arousal which illustrates the disconnections cultivated in the pursuit of "higher" goals. One researcher spoke of how the research involved measuring physical arousal signs of subjects watching various videos of sexual activities. As I watched, it was evident that the "subjects" were not individual human beings to the scientists. Paying them to be "subjects" justified what they were being subjected to. One should ask, but Charlie Rose notably did not, how the subjects live thereafter with the memories of the people in the videos and their own physiological reactions when the "scientific study" is complete. Are there lasting effects in their own sexuality from the disconnections they experienced in their relationships to the scientists, and between their bodies' responses and the people in the videos? Note the multiple layers of human disconnection: scientist to subject, subject to objects in videos, objects to viewers of videos. Thus, disconnected from the implications of behavior in themselves and the disconnected others, this study passes as "science" -- a purportedly "closed system." Yet, the system cannot be closed because of the human implications for the people who willingly submit themselves to the study, and who cannot walk away from the process the same, whole persons as they were when they entered the study.

The philosophy and sociology underlying this science flaw the results. I'd surmise that scientists simply can't measure true sexual response of faithful partners, because that would involve intimate relationship between partners who wouldn't subject themselves to public viewing or measuring. As postmodern philosophers note, the act of observation changes that which is observed and the observing ones.

Personally, academically and professionally, we all engage in "boundary-posturing mechanisms", as sociologist Robert Wuthnow named them in his book,
The Struggle for America's Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism: "...scientists, especially those in the less codified disciplines, rely frequently on values, attitudes, and life-styles to maintain the reality of science by setting up external boundaries between themselves and the general public or those who represent the realm of everyday reality. ...[they] turn to symbolic modes of differentiating themselves from everyday reality in order to maintain the plausibility of their scientific orientations - orientations that are inevitably precarious in relation to the paramount reality of everyday life." (p. 153)

Although Wuthnow applies this specifically to scientists, and to social scientists especially, it is a useful concept that we can use regarding the differentiations and disconnections we're constantly making from one another to maintain our own "plausibility structure" (sociologist Peter Berger's term), i.e., the preservation of our version of reality. To put it simply, we all create a "that's my story and I'm sticking to it" rationale of how we perceive reality, how we perceive ourselves, and how we treat and respond to others. Our rationale may be orderly or disorderly, planned or made up as we go along, fixed or fluid, defined in elegant language or in instinctual responses. The rationale works better when we find fellow believers with whom we constantly refine and reinforce our version and outlook, because community can be an impregnable fortress against those who perceive otherwise, and even against reality itself.

In our corporations, organizations, bureaucracies, academies, and voluntary organizations, we naturally gravitate toward (or coagulate with!) those who differentiate similarly. The real problems start to spread like fungus when our human intra- and interconnectedness and encountered truths become progressively more obscured by our compulsive boundary-posturing and self-valuation. The scientist cannot be separated from their own humanity and philosophy, the object of scrutiny cannot be separated from the effects of scrutiny, the subject of inquiry cannot be separated from the inquirer, "free-market capitalism" cannot be separated from human greed,
the wealthy cannot be distanced from the poor, human physiology cannot be distanced from physical experience by mental rationale, emotions, or spirituality.

We maintain the darkness of our disconnections in order to reassure ourselves of our comparative value. The good news of God-in-Christ is a revolutionary re-valuation through reconciliation and one-ness within God. It's frightening light to mushrooms.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

conflict-making or peacemaking?

Our reconciliation ministry had our board meeting tonight, and it seemed fitting that Scot McKnight had quotes from Stanley Hauerwas on a recent blog ( ).

What I find interesting is the correlation between secular and faith-based conflict resolution:
"Given the diminished state of the Church some Christians might even believe that if we could gain more members by being heretical so much the worse for orthodoxy." But, if orthodoxy "is used as a hammer to beat into submission those we think heterodox" it "betrays itself." So instead of a hammer, "orthodoxy is displayed as an act of love that takes the form of careful speech." There are limits, and not all stick to the limits: "orthodoxy is the hard discipline of learning to say what needs to be said and no more." And this one: "Orthodoxy shows why what we believe cannot be explained but can only be prayed." So Hauerwas. (from McKnight's 1st blog on Quash & Ward's book on Heresies)

Next, look at this information from a local secular mediation organization:
Creative Conflict Ten Tips
  • Respect everyone’s ideas and needs
  • Turn problems into possibilities
  • Listen so people will talk and talk so people will listen
  • Focus on the problem, not the person
  • Build “power with” not “power over” others
  • Express feeling without blaming others
  • Own your part of the conflict
  • Strategize to reach mutually agreeable solutions
  • Create options … one way always creates losers
  • Solve the problem and build the relationship

Both approaches emphasize relationship as foundational to conflict resolution. If we want to destroy relationships, or if we believe that any relationship matters nothing to us, we have the (abusive, IMHO) power to do so. Looking at the 10 tips, I can see biblical parallels for each one, although people without a biblical perspective will flavor them differently than do I.
  • Respect everyone's ideas and needs // biblical understanding of honoring diversity of God's creation, and by the way, "respect" includes both grace & truth according to our faith!
  • turn problems into possibilities // Paul and James share the understanding that our trials, entrusted by us to God's hands, produce perseverance, character and hope in our lives
  • listen so people will talk and talk so people will listen // "Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (Prov. 12:18) "...but no one can tame the tongue, a restless evil full of deadly venom. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God." (James 3:8-9)
  • focus on the problem, not the person // "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." (Phil. 2: 3-4)
  • build "power with" not "power over" others // "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant..." (Matt. 20:25-26)
  • etc. including elements of confession, repentance, forgiveness

Hammer-making and hammer-wielding seem to be human problems. Whatever the content of our particular "orthodoxy" - be it embodied in a religious body of beliefs, or in a secular system, our bent is to hammer others into compliance through whatever means are available in that context.

So, how does our faith call us to respond to the hammer-wielders? Much as it challenges our natural methods, our response is simply to stand in Christ, speak the truth, trust God to deliver us.
Not grab our own hammer, swing harder and aim better...
Not run away from the blows, although Ephesians 6 gives godly defensive measures and godly offensive means -- the Word of God...

Humanly, we'd rather fight or run than be faithful --yeah, even in the church, even among the leaders, elders and pastors who are "supposed to know better."

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." "But I say to you that listen. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."

God knows we can't do this in our own strength.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thinking about Discernment and Judgment

I'm very aware of the tension between discerning the truth and judging others that makes many, if not most, people uncomfortable. So-called fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are frequently perceived as being "too quick to judge" others, or even one another. Main-line denominations may have more problems with erring on the other side of the issue - failing to speak truth or use the Word, at all, for fear of being perceived as "not nice", "not friendly", "unloving", or "judging" others. I know leaders in a main-line denomination who don't want others to tell Scriptural truth, who don't want to hear truth, and who fail to speak truth, at all, because they perceive truth-telling as judgmental.

I'm going to toss a thought into the ring that occurred while I was mulling over this during my times with the Lord the last couple of days. I believe the above dilemma involves a grave misunderstanding - on both sides - of "judging" and "judgment."

Discernment: Christians need to speak the truth according to the Word, and Christians need to discern the "signs of the times", the presence of ungodly or counter-biblical practices in ourselves and one another, because to fail to speak truth is to fail to love others as God loves us. God, God's Son, Jesus, and God's servants (prophets and apostles) always called a spade, "a spade"!

Judgment: Let me suggest this idea that has held up so far in my studies (James 4, Matthew 7 and my understanding of the Hebrew, mishpat). Judgment is the decision of the Judge to render consequences to the guilty. Judging involves acting on the awareness of guilt, or the perception of guilt according to some legal standard. That legal standard may/may not be God's standard, in real life, because we frequently get our own personal laws mixed in with God's.

Pro-Discernment: Christian discernment is normed by Scripture. Christians must discern truth from lie, reconciliation from cessation of warfare, repentance from highly glossed words and pretense, the faithful follower from the facade of the religious. No Christian can succeed at godly discernment where they have failed to come under God's own discerning eye, repented, received the pain of consequences, and picked up his/her own cross to follow Jesus. (Being human, it's easy to believe our own self-deception that we don't have to do the hard and humbling stuff ourselves in order to be able to see clearly what's happening with others -- cf. Matt.7:4-5.)

Anti-Human-Judgment: Where Jesus, Paul and James, as well as the OT prophets, drew the line, is against the times when we decide to impose consequences on the other. We're not the Judge, James said, so we should not "speak evil against" or "slander" one another. Speaking evil against, or slandering one another is an act of human judgment; we're deciding what consequences to impose for whatever the offense was and we're carrying it out. We judge others when we impose the penalty on them, and in so doing, distrust that God will be the One Judge. Separation from one another, divorce and alienation are also signs of judgment. This judgment, then, is an act of faithlessness.

Discerning truth from lie and speaking truth, on the other hand, is essential to being a faithful Christian, and needs always to stem from a humble heart that serves God and others. Anger isn't antithetical to humility, by the way, because Jesus, the apostles and prophets surely were angry at those who abused the powerless and poor! However, anger is not justification for slandering or demeaning the other created in God's image.

Truth hurts -- the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God will always cut us. Our faith may be first evidenced in standing still under God's sword, facing the ugliness of who we are - broken and ugly in sin without Godself, and trusting that the pain we feel is only God's faithfulness in dividing death from new life. Thanks be to God whose Son Jesus gives us the assurance that we may know new life because of his sacrifice and resurrection!

We should be seeking faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who won't fail to tell us the truth while always standing under the truth of the Word with us. In other words, truth-tellers don't abandon others, don't slander others, do give grace and forgiveness, but may face being abandoned themselves, being slandered, being unforgiven, and harmed by those unwilling to face the truth with us. None of the latter should prevent us from loving them enough to speak truth and offer grace -- we are the Body of Christ!

  1. in response to Larry Kamphausen's comment: Larry made a comment about the discernment/judgment blog I wrote that adds "time" as an element. I agree with him, particularly because we're naturally so impatient with one another. Thank you, Larry, for pointing this out! If we consider that the metaphor of fruit is frequently used in the discernment process of godly and ungodly paths both by Jesus (Luke 6) and Paul, it reminds us that our posture of love-which-is-patient-and-kind allows the evidence to mature and waits for the "kairos"/season to speak. Remembering that our attitude and posture of humble servants to God and to others is essential to keeping us Christ-centered.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

At peace or war within ourselves

Last week I had one of those encounters with a very angry person that leaves one wondering, "what was that about?" Since our house church has been studying James together, my thoughts went back to some of the verses, and I realized that 4:1 is translated differently in various versions. "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?"

Although the "you" is plural in the Greek throughout the verse, there is the implication in the second clause that warring within ourselves leads to disputing with others. Perhaps your anecdotes and observations may differ from my own (and from James', cf. 3:13-4:12), but I don't recall ever meeting a peace-filled person who seeks confrontation not conversation; however, I have met folks who avoid all confrontation and still lack peace themselves. Obviously, confrontation or avoidance don't produce peace in and of themselves. What does?

Jesus said, "
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matt. 5:9) Jesus was a teller of truth (aka "prophet") which is an uncomfortable and dangerous position in a world filled with people wedded to the status quo, the system, and its supporting structures. Making peace, according to scripture, has more to do with encouraging one another to face the truth than with approving of, maintaining, protecting, giving in to, avoiding, dominating or manipulating one another. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, according to Paul (Eph. 6), although human wielding of the Word isn't always Spirit-led, as most of us have witnessed! (but I digress...) The gospel of peace is proclaimed with the sword of the Word, and that sword cuts both ways -- we have to lose our lives in order to wield it (Matt. 10:34-39).

Perhaps Arthur Frank's "Dialogical Stoic" is an apt descriptor for some of us. (
The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine and How to Live) I find it helpful. The stoic is able to receive or refuse true or false representations of his/her self when others cast them onto him/her. (cf., Eph. 6:16, the shield of faith) But, the dialogical aspect of Frank's stoic always seeks to remain in conversation with the other, recognizing value and worth despite the other's possible misrepresentations of the stoic. (James 3:17-18)

For those of us who follow Christ's way, we can face the truth about ourselves and the ways we've been hooked into unhealthy systems, while knowing that our turning toward God by the power of the Spirit results in forgiveness. When others who remain hooked cast their representations onto us, we should know God, the Word and ourselves well enough to know what is true or not about that representation. Hear any truth, let go of anything false, stand in Christ, respond with grace and truth (not with carnal weaponry like name-calling, anger, ad hominen attacks...). This is our call to humility and maturity - a tall order which seems possible (at least to me!) only when I'm walking in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

At what price "order"?

Perhaps news reports about abusive treatment of the poor and of women have highlighted this issue in my mind. James said that our conflicts (verbal and physical) begin in the unfulfilled desires raging within us. (1:14-15, 4:1-3) Prof. Boaz Johnson (North Park University) recently wrote about the enslavement and maltreatment of the lower castes by the higher castes, while reflecting on the movie which story had echoes in his own childhood, Slumdog Millionaire. A World Focus segment on female genital mutilation in Africa and subsequent conversation with an African friend reminded me how girls and women have been harmed, deformed permanently, and sometimes killed by this procedure. Is protecting one's daughters from genital mutilation or social ostracism and public humiliation if it's refused grounds for refugee status in the US?

I happen to be working in an environment that orders by alphabet soup -- i.e., when one walks down the halls of this institution, past dozens of offices, each name plate has the person's name, followed by title and the acronmyn for every degree and certification achieved. Somehow, I think my grandfather, a college President who believed education to be a guarantor of "equality of opportunity for all," would have been sorely disappointed to see how humans have wielded their educational credentials to aggrandize one's position, and to batter others' self-worth.

Whether order is cemented by circumstance of birth family, by gender, by educational or experiential credentials, by personality or charisma or appearance, by race or ethnicity, or by physical power, makes no difference to biblical prophets. God's ordering is the antithesis of ours: we serve an upside-down God - or, rather, we have been up-ended by our sin and God is the only upright One!

So, to the co-worker or boss who objects to the "disorderliness" of kindness and patience, our faith responds with a graceful "no" to reorient the process toward love, care and service of one another. We're called to look to the interests of others, to deny ourselves, to have the mind of Christ, who served us even to the cross. In the face of one who demeans any other person, we respond with love and grace toward that one, a re-affirmation and reminder within ourselves of Whom we serve, and we continue to stand for the good news of God's value and worth of the other person. May we not back down in the face of the threat, whomever the person threatening us may be!

We're simply afraid of God's ordering of love. We think we'll lose position, wealth, status, or worth. Where's the faith of Jesus Christ whom we claim to follow?
Psalm 56:10-11

In God, whose word I praise,

in the LORD, whose word I praise,

in God I trust; I am not afraid.

What can a mere mortal do to me?

Monday, March 9, 2009

how are the rich boasting now?

We've been studying the book of James for the last couple of months. It's remarkable how timely it is - proving, once again, that there's nothing new under the sun. One of the crucial mistakes that each generation makes is thinking that we know better than those who lived before us. We won't make those mistakes that they did in the last big economic bust; this time is different because of technology / education / free markets /whatever. It's as if we forget that humans are humans, likely to be greedy when markets float on the hot air of the arrogant, and likely to be fearful when uncertainty and losses burn hotter and spread faster than we can hose them down.

Reading James in these times is remarkable because we can hear prophetic words in a book considered to be "wisdom literature" by most scholars. Consider the messages to the rich and poor in the 5 short chapters. The rich should "boast in being brought low" (ch. 1) and not "in [their] arrogance." (ch.4) They should weep and wail for the miseries that are coming because their riches have rotted, and their gold and silver have rusted (ch.5).

James 2 chastises people who fawn over the rich and demean the poor ("maybe the poor haven't worked out enough to pull themselves up by their boot straps, or they're just lazy", they say). In ch. 3, James could very well be warning trash-talking TV & radio hosts how their words have contributed to the whole cycle of nature being set alight. Their tongues are likened to the venom of poisonous snakes, or the ember that sets a forest alight and which is set on fire by hell. Why do so many people who believe themselves to worship Jesus Christ tune their radios and TV's to these hosts? There are ways to speak truth without fanning flames of polarization and division.

The irony of claiming to be Christian while failing to honor others, verbally and in actions, made in the image of God shows up throughout this letter. These are the "hearers [of the word] who deceive themselves", who "look at themselves in a mirror...and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like...[they are] hearers who forget." (ch.1) Their so-called "religion" is worthless.

James spoke to Christians in the midst of furor and upheaval with the certainty of one walking closely with Godself. Patience, endurance, meekness, peacefulness, mercy, purity, gentleness, truthfulness, humility, compassion, and wisdom characterize the "doers of the word...those who look into the perfect law of liberty, and persevere...doers who act - they will be blessed in their doing." Being patient in suffering is a sign of trust in the Lord. How short-term is human focus! Always has been, always will be! Endure this time, patiently, and keep looking to the Lord, remembering the prophets and believers who've trusted the Lord through their own traumatic times and dangers. In this time of fear, frustration, and anger at being defrauded by the rich, James calls us to worship God, to take care of one another, to feed the widow and the orphan, to work patiently and diligently, to pray for wisdom from God and for healing of one another.

Finally, his advice to the rich is to weep and wail - most of us hear those words as "you'll get yours!" Rather, I believe he is calling them to repent of their fraud, their hoarding of wealth to the deprivation of the poor, and their failure to do what they know is right. (ch.4:13-5:6) The truth, for James, is that those who fail to do the word, who fail to persevere in blessing everyone made in the image of God, are those who've "condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you."

How many pastors have been partial to the wealthy over the elderly, the poor, the widows, and the lonely? Whom have they been serving?

Friday, March 6, 2009

the effects of denying the wrongs

Penny Coleman, in her book Flashback on PTSD, suicide and war, noted that the veterans of war and their families would have benefited had the military and their caring arms acknowledged the correlations other countries have begun admitting already (e.g., Australia & the UK). The families of vets who'd committed suicide could have dealt with the aftermath of their loved one's death. "Instead of compassion in our time of grief, we got the bottom line. A simple public acknowledgment when the patterns began to be observed, when the numbers started coming in, that suicide is often a direct result of combat PTSD, would have profoundly changed our expectations, our inclination to seek help, and the load of guilt and failure we have lugged around ever since. ...We thought we were alone. We were exhausted. We had no proof." (p. 146) Fear of being inundated with claims for service which would tax the physical & mental health system overrode honesty and integrity in medical and psychological studies of combat veterans.

From the perspective of the Christian faith, institutional obfuscation is clearly a failure to confess the truth. As most victims of corporate or institutional wrongdoing know, the first "wrong" or error is often not as painful as the ongoing denial of complicity, culpability or responsibility by leaders or others in that corporate group. What would happen had a leader clearly stated the obvious, for instance, that Agent Orange caused a host of physical illnesses in vets who were exposed to it in Vietnam? or, that higher rates of suicide and PTSD have been linked in combat vets? Even the UN has noted that their own peacekeeping forces are at higher risk in both short and long term (Coleman, 146).

Does fear of the cost prevent us from loving and serving our neighbor with the truth? As individuals, and as groups and systems? How small our trust in God is when we let the potential cost determine our commitment to God and neighbor! Perhaps, too, the admission of mistakes or poor judgment might very well lower the end cost. There will always be people who try to litigate, of course, but the very non-admission of wrongdoing or guilt is what frequently inspires people to litigate. Litigants, not infrequently, simply want to force the confession that hasn't been simply profferred. What costs more, one wonders: cover-up, denial, and litigation? or, acceptance, apology, and reasonable redress?

In terms of trust in the greater system, the latter can inspire hope and cooperation, a sense of relief and acceptance, a willingness to work for solutions. Making excuses, rationalizing, and covering-up errors of commission, omission and ignorance, on the other hand, divides us from one another and also divides us within ourselves. The mental costs to the sufferer can be very high, and, our Christian faith proclaims, the spiritual costs to the wrong-doer escalate and snowball, too, to themselves, their families, and their communities. (cf. Psalm 73)

Perhaps one of the most profound lessons veterans teach us is how vulnerable and fragile we are, ultimately, despite all our armor, impervious masks, weaponry, power to destroy, or money. Love and truth walk hand in hand, confessing and healing.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

paradoxical myths in vets

I've another book to add to my lengthy list of books to read: Recalling our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers, by Edward Wimberly. Wimberly discusses the myths that we bring from our families and experiences into our vocation. In our cohort's discussion of Wimberly's material, I realized there is a commonality in the myths revealed in veterans' stories and the literature on PTSD. Two myths, especially, seem to be dialectically related in stories I hear:
1) as one would expect in a volunteer-based military, particularly one that markets itself to young men and women, there is a myth of invulnerability. Many of these young people, and the military establishment itself, act on a belief that being vulnerable is a liability. Vulnerability is associated with weakness and imperfection. The very admission of psychic wounds is an admission of vulnerability that runs counter to the promotional ladder, and not uncommonly will knock one off that ladder altogether. Bravado is applauded and rewarded, and it manifests differently in men and women. The cultivation and utilization of anger to fuel bravado and action is frequently present in military activity.

2) on the other hand, there is a myth of powerlessness that is manifested in the top-down hierarchy of many organizations, and which is exemplified by military structure. The men and women express little control over their coming and going, their destination, their missions, and the outcomes of those missions. For the vet whose PTSD manifests in anger or intermittent rage that makes it difficult to hold down a job in the civilian marketplace, there may be the option of ongoing employment with some branch of the military -- at the "price" of staying in the reserves, and the "risk" of being re-deployed. For the national guardswo/man whose trauma and fear manifest in magical thinking, the coping mechanism may be a "religious" avoidance of certain places on base that are identified with higher risk of being mortared. (unguided weapons) Another person on that same base may ignore all the sirens and take-cover warnings, revealing by inaction an operating belief that the ignoring wards off the danger. There's an innate passivity in each of these soldiers to their experiences of powerlessness over themselves and their situations, coupled with a methodology of coping that is implausible, illogical, &/or incapable of personal agency.

In the context of pastoral care, the first myth is certainly an obstacle, although some vets may reveal to a chaplain what they may not confide in a mental health worker (or vice versa). Exposing either myth carelessly might unbalance someone who is already fragile, even though that myth ultimately isn't serving the person well.

I noted a startling disconnection in a presentation that compared Compassion Fatigue and PTSD. A primary indicator of risk for CF is the lack of control over one's environment; gaining a sense of control over the caregiving environment is also a primary factor for preventing CF.

The high incidence of PTSD in the Vietnam War vets has been directly attributed by psychiatrists and care-givers to the powerlessness that many soldiers felt over their missions, their placement in combat units without integration or training with fellow soldiers, and their distance from officers, among other factors. The breakdown of military command structures in Vietnam, the fragging of officers, and the increasing incidence of military "refusal" (i.e., mutiny) contributed as much or more to the US withdrawal than the anti-war movement in the US.

Should the military not anticipate PTSD as "normal" rather than "abnormal"? Military order always risks increasing powerlessness down the lines of command. I'd surmise that it's the rare commanding officer who gives authority and agency to his/her subordinates. Would that even be taught? It's rare enough that the medical caregivers attending the seminar wondered what increasing "control over the caregiving environment" might look like in practice.

This is no different than the typical corporate command structure, many ecclesiastical orders, churches, and families too, by the way!

Humans seem to be born with another myth; I'd name this myth the myth of control. That myth would reveal itself in the constant domination/manipulation, ruling/submitting, that characterizes most human interactions. In the military setting, it manifests in blinkered following of orders, regardless of what those orders may comprise. It manifests in the coping mechanisms mentioned above on the base under fire; avoiding certain areas gives one person a sense of control, just as ignoring the sirens gives the other person that same sense. In churches, it manifests in biblical ignorance and idol-creation. (Note: I'm using idol so as not to offend any polity more than another!) Idols are the infallible church leaders who may be present in every type of church polity, whether that be an episcopal, presbyterian, congregational, or independent church polity. The followers believe this myth, and the leader nurtures it by fear, intimidation, charisma, or power-abuse. It looks like this in action: Our leader always speaks with the voice of "god." Do not question him/her. Their position, alone, makes biblical authority irrelevant. Their actions and knowledge are above us, unaccountable to us, unquestionable by us, and they always know better. They hear god "better" than we can (so many of us don't even talk/listen to god). If you dare to question them, or if you dare to point out something inconsistent between profession and action (hypocrisy!), you will be penalized, perhaps even crucified. If you note the hypocrisy of the leader, the only appropriate action, according to this dysfunctional system, is to shut up and go along, or disappear out of the system.

An African friend, today, told me of a myth that manifests in his culture in a similar way: older men are never wrong, never questioned, and never confronted. To tell an older man that he lied, erred or deceived in some manner may bring civil penalties of a fine, or possibly a jail sentence to the younger person. Some families in this country manifest that same myth, and the enforcing of this myth is accomplished through verbal abuse and domestic violence.

Does your family or church or workplace offer value and worth in their affirmation of you? Do they grant you an atypical sense of participatory "control" by their welcome of you and your unique talents, experiences, and contributions in that structure? If you feel powerless, what might you do or say constructively to promote change?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

the name change

It didn't take a week for me to change the name of the blog! There were three reasons: first, I was still trying to figure out how this blog page sets up; second, I realized there are a lot of folks who have the "muse"; and third, my commitment to Jesus Christ is evidenced in my commitment to the church - which is the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is where we experience what it means to serve and love God and neighbor, where we become truly human, and our soul is restored.

It's not an overstatement to say that the church is "called out" of the world to be the community of the reconciled and the reconciling. We are reconciled to God in Christ, and we
should experience reconciliation to one another under the Word in the church. Yet, I'm sure that most Christians, if not all of us, would raise our hands if asked whether we had not experienced reconciliation and restoration of our souls in one or more institutions called "churches." In my work as a chaplain, I frequently hear the words, "I'm a Christian [or "I'm spiritual"] but I don't/ won't go to any church, because _[insert story of abuse, gossip, deceit, petty cliques, money-grubbing (real or perceived), betrayal or political machinations here]__."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, Life Together, noted that this behavior reveals the absence of community gathered by the Holy Spirit in genuine spiritual love.
"Human love has little regard for the truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person. Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving. ...Human love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false for the sake of genuine fellowship, and human love cannot love an enemy, that is, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it. Both spring from the same source: human love is by its very nature desire - desire for human community. So long as it can satisfy this desire in some way, it will not give it up, even for the sake of truth, even for the sake of genuine love for others. But where it can no longer expect its desire to be fulfilled, there it stops short - namely, in the face of an enemy. There it turns into hatred, contempt, and calumny.
"Right here is the point where spiritual love begins. This is why human love becomes personal hatred when it encounters genuine spiritual love, which does not desire but serves..." (pp. 34-35)

Our churches should be offering hope, healing, restoration and reconciliation to God and one another by the power of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Christ in our midst. We certainly can't offer this only with our human nature and abilities!