Projection of Expectation

OverwhelmedSometimes, our expectations can get in the way.  When, for example, we’ve been unhappy with something for a while, and someone comes along whom we hope will make a change for the better, we end up projecting our expectations onto that person — only to be disappointed, because the expectations we are projecting are simply impossible to live up to.  They have emerged out of a pent-up hope and longing, and so they have been set higher than any human being could really reasonably be expected to achieve.   Or, alternatively, they might be achievable, but we are unwilling to give the person the time realistically required for that achievement.

When we project high, time-sensitive expectations onto others, we become disappointed, frustrated, perhaps even angry when they are not fulfilled to our satisfaction.  And thus we bring upon ourselves a rather unnecessary sort of suffering.  But we are not the only ones who suffer.  The person who is the recipient of our projected expectations also suffers, because our disappointment, anger, and frustration get communicated to that person either directly or indirectly, and often s/he is taken by surprise — because usually, s/he had not idea of what our expectations were, and therefore had no opportunity to even try to fulfill them, whether that was ever a possibility or not.  In the end, relationships get strained or disrupted, and everyone is left feeling wounded.  Reconciliation is necessary, and can happen, in these circumstances, but we cannot help but think that the whole painful situation might have been avoided in the first place if we had been more realistic about our expectations, and more effective in communicating them to others.

In these moments, we might remember the basic counsel of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We would wish to avoid unnecessary suffering in life, and so would those around us.  If we are able to carry with us a kind of compassion toward others that recognizes the limits of what is possible, and keep ourselves from expecting too much too soon, then we might avoid the deep disappointment for ourselves that comes from unrealistic expectations, and thus we would also avoid pulling others into our own pain.  We should try to bear in mind that relationships come first, and that a person is more than a to do list or an agenda of priorities.  If we can calibrate our expectations to flow out of relationship, then we are more likely to move forward that which we hope to move forward with a minimum of unnecessary pain.

Trusting the Real

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-sky“Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it.”   These words by Richard Rohr seem to me to be profoundly insightful about the way in which we have faith — a word which really means “trust” rather than “belief”.  And we see this insight most clearly, I think, when we consider those moments in life which are difficult and painful, those moments when we would say that something bad has happened to us.

Because human beings are creatures of meaning, and we want life to be meaningful, we rarely leave an event uninterpreted.  When something happens to us, we usually want to understand why it has happened and what it means.  Consider, for example, that one receives an unexpected diagnosis of a dread disease.   This is the kind of thing that throws us for a loop, for it comes to us unexpectedly, it activates the fear that most of us carry somewhere inside us that such a thing could happen at some point, and it threatens our earthly life.   I have rarely known anyone, finding themselves pulled suddenly into this difficult reality, who does not at some point wonder about it, and try to make sense out of it.  And since most people I have encountered at these times are people of faith, there is the almost inevitable question of how God fits into the equation.

And it is at this point, where we find ourselves grappling with the relationship between God and this terrible thing that has happened to us, that any of a whole host of theologies will be drawn upon to make things meaningful.  I have been asked this question — “Why did God give me cancer? — on more than one occasion.   I have heard a variety of theological speculations about the secret purposes of God that might be at work in these moments.  I have heard resignation in the words, “God’s ways are mysterious.”   And I have encountered sometimes faith-shattering anger that God would allow such a thing to intrude into one’s life.   Each of these responses is an attempt to do theology.  Each is an effort to make a difficult and painful situation meaningful in a way that makes sense.   And, for me, each of these responses falls short, and leads us — as all theological solutions must — into difficult and dangerous alleys, and frequently alleys in which God comes off appearing to be either cruel or indifferent.

What Rohr’s statement about faith points us toward is a change to our usual spiritual practice of needing to impose meaning on a situation, even when the imposition of that meaning enhances our own suffering in some way (for how can the thought of God giving one cancer not add to one’s suffering at a psychic/spiritual level?).  Instead, Rohr suggests that we change course, and simply embrace the reality that is before us.  To continue with the example I have been using, this alternative practice would mean simply acknowledging the fact that one has cancer, acknowledging all the pain, fear, and other feelings that this fact engenders in us, and living for a while in the midst of all of those feelings and their attendant uncertainties.  In other words, it is to make a deliberate effort not to make this thing that has happened to us readily meaningful, but rather to live squarely in the reality of it, allowing any meaning that may be there to emerge rather than imposing something preconceived.

This is, in Rohr’s words, to “trust the real”.  And, the added component is, as we trust the real, to also trust that God is somehow found within it, even — and perhaps especially — when God’s “within-it-ness” seems hard or impossible to discern.

This approach transforms faith from a set of answers set up in the form of belief statements to a deep engagement with the real stuff of human life, in all its complexity, messiness, and contradiction, trusting that living in the tension of this deep engagement will lead us to a deeper knowledge and experience of ourselves and of the God who can only really be found within the sometimes all too real-ness of human existence.

Diabolical Living

WoodWindow WIN1701_02Recently, I learned that the word “diabolical” means, at its root, to “throw across”, from the Greek dia (meaning “across”) and ballo (meaning “I throw”).   The sense of the word is that diabolical behavior is that which has the effect of throwing something at something else in order to shatter its integrity.   Like throwing a rock through a glass window.

Of course, we don’t normally think of rocks thrown through windows as diabolical.  We tend to reserve that word for particularly heinous acts of violence or evil.  Hence, the word in Greek becomes a name for the devil, and moves out from Greek to denote the devil or demonic behavior in other languages.

It seems to me that there are a lot of people today living what we might call diabolical lives.  Not because they are somehow in the service of the devil, but because much of their lives seem to be devoted to attempts at shattering the integrity of others.  What passes, for example, for political campaigning or debate is seldom, it seems, a genuine, substantive engagement over issues, but more like a competition to see who can through the most stones at the opposing person so as to shatter as much of his or her integrity as possible.  What passes for religion often does the same thing:  rather than inviting people into a deeper, more authentic, more compassionate life where healing and transformation might be found, far too many religious people and groups today are more concerned with shattering the lives and integrity of people whom they see as “other” and therefore threatening.

I’ve never been convinced that there is such a being as “the devil”, but it certainly is true that our willingness to live diabolically draws us away from God.

I am reminded of that wonderful story in John’s Gospel of the woman “caught in adultery” who is brought to Jesus by a crowd who want him to confirm that the traditional penalty — stoning the woman to death — is just and right.   Jesus declines to do so, instead turning the matter around and simply saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”   Jesus has no interest in affirming diabolical behavior.  He sees nothing just or right coming forth from a literal shattering of this woman’s life.   And once the crowd, drawn out of their desire for the diabolical by Jesus’ simple response, drifts away, Jesus refuses to condemn the woman and invites her to move forward in her life.  Rather than shattering her existence, Jesus invites her to see the futility of how she has been living, and move forward into a transformed life that is truer, deeper, more authentic.

God does not embrace the diabolical.  God does not seek to shatter the window panes of our souls, but simply to open those windows up so a fresh wind of the Spirit might blow through.    Perhaps if our religious and secular cultures could stop throwing things for a moment, and instead open ourselves up to really hear, see, and know each other, we could develop a better, deeper, more authentic community.

Unsafe Expectations

200px-General_Seminary_Seal_Compressed_FileThose outside of The Episcopal Church may not be much aware of this, but within the Episcopal community this week has been a lot of talk about General Seminary in New York, the oldest of our denominational seminaries and the only one owned by the General Convention, the governing body of Episcopalians.  The faculty has become embroiled in a dispute with the Dean and Board of Trustees, with the upshot being that eight of the ten full time faculty have been fired — or, in the more careful language of the seminary administration, their resignations were accepted (though, the faculty claims, they were never offered).

It’s not my intention to rehearse all of this (there are plenty of stories online about it, and even The New York Times has published on it), nor am I really in a position to know what is happening (although the values we claim to uphold as Christians and Episcopalians don’t seem much in evidence in all of this).   It’s all quite disturbing at a number of different levels, and probably also serves as a sign of the stress and distress characterizing seminary life these days (driven by dropping enrollments and pressing financial realities — and the fact that The Episcopal Church has more seminaries than it needs).    What has perhaps disturbed me the most about all of this, however, is a report that came out from a meeting that was held between the chair of the Board of Trustees (a retired bishop) and the student body.  In that report, students apparently asked the bishop to have the Dean of the seminary leave the room for some of the conversation because his presence felt intimidating and unsafe.  The bishop was not inclined to do so, and reportedly said in response, “in parishes you serve, there is no safe speaking.”

If this report is accurate, and the bishop actually said those words, I find what they seem to imply deeply troubling.  On its face, the bishop’s comments would seem to imply that within Episcopal parish communities, it is not possible to speak safely — at least, it is not possible for those in leadership to speak safely.   It makes me wonder what this bishop’s experience of church life has been that would cause him to reach the conclusion that the “default mode” of parish life is a lack of safety.  And, if that is indeed the case, then why should anyone wish to seek ordination and assume leadership of such communities if they can expect to spend the entirety of their ministries in unsafe environments?

The words “church” and “unsafe” should never peacefully coexist.  The last few years have revealed lots of stories in the press about the horrors of unsafe churches, particularly for children.  Most recently, a well-known non-denominational megachurch in Seattle has faced multiple allegations that it is an unsafe place.   Episcopalians, I think, like to pretend that problems of unsafe churches are elsewhere, and not within our own communities, but that is indeed pretending.  We may not have been beset by the kind of crisis that has gripped the Roman Catholic Church, but there are children, women, and men in The Episcopal Church who have become victims of a lack of safety in some of our communities.  The stories that emerge from unsafe faith communities are terrible, but they should never be accepted as normative.

For the bishop to suggest that our communities are normatively unsafe is doubly troubling to those connected to General Seminary, I should think, given that the faculty who have been dismissed have alleged that they felt unsafe within the seminary, due to actions they allege on the part of the Dean.  While I think he did not intend to convey this, the bishop’s comments could be construed as suggesting that because churches cannot be relied upon to be safe places, no one should expect the seminary to be a safe place, either.

All of this is entirely unacceptable.   We should expect our congregations and our seminaries to be safe places, and if we discover they are not, we should do all that can be done to make them safe.  After all, faith communities are supposed to be about providing places to do serious work of the soul, and that kind of work requires a certain level of vulnerability and trust.  A congregation (or a seminary) that cannot be a safe place cannot, therefore, fulfill its mission.

I am thankful that, for the most part, I have not shared the experience that the bishop seems to have had.  I have, with rare exceptions, experienced the communities I have served as safe places.   There have been moments, however, when circumstances or conflicts have created what for me were temporary moments when I didn’t feel safe, and I suspect others didn’t, as well, and these were terrible, troubling moments.  I could not live and work in a community in which that was always the case, and neither could anyone else who had even a modicum of mental and spiritual health.

“Unsafe” should never be the church’s default mode, whether we are talking about speech or any other aspect of church life.  And the moment we find out that safety is lacking, we need to recognize that our very reason for being is imperiled, and everything must be done to repair the damage and make the community safe once again.