Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cripples, all of us?


April 29, 2012

Dear friends,

The grocery store story continues to cause some cognitive echoes from readers. (Blog, March 25; blog April 1.)

Several of you have reported yourselves saying “I’m sorry,” and then, after a brief moment, found yourself thinking, “This isn’t a case for forgiveness. But what do I need to ask for?”

The frail woman who initiated the tuna fish-breakfast food disaster with her shopping cart felt intuitively that she needed to ask for something, and so she said, “Please forgive me.” There has been a clear consensus among readers (with which I agree) that the woman asked for forgiveness when forgiveness wasn’t the issue. But there is less consensus about what the woman might have said instead. What in fact did she need?

Frederick Buechner in a passage from Brendan opens the door to the alternative. He writes:*

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table top he [Gildas] heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leapt forward and caught him.


“I’m as crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.


“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.


Gildas with but one leg, Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We was cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.


“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said. “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”


Why do we find it easier to ask for--or to accept--forgiveness rather than compassion?

Thinking that this week I want to lend a hand to the falling with such easy grace that  compassion is clearly a free gift—no request for forgiveness required or relevant.

See you next week.

Gay

*Frederick Buechner. 1992.  Listening to Your Life. Compiled and edited by George Connor.  New York: HarperOne, p.76.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

License to blame?


April 22, 2012

Dear friends,

In relationship building forgiveness can serve as a powerful positive process. What is also true, however, is that the faulty use of forgiveness (pseudo-forgiveness) is a powerful process as well, one that is difficult to identify and even more difficult to confront.

A friend who is a sensitive, nurturing pastor of a small parish recently met with me for a “working” lunch. The problem with which my friend was grappling held at its core a parishioner’s use of forgiveness (pseudo-forgiveness) as a license to blame.

As my friend related the story, a woman in the congregation frequently made an appointment with my friend. She would inevitably explain the purpose of these appointments in biblical terms. “I believe that if my brother trespasses against me, Scripture tells me to go to him and tell him directly what he’s done. That’s why I’m here,” she would say, adding virtuously, “Now, Pastor, you know I take Matthew 18:15 seriously.”

Then having pre-framed her blaming behavior as obedience to Scripture, she would recount in painful detail all the faults, sins and omissions of the pastor that she had observed since her last appointment.

The issues would include such items as:

• length of sermons (some were too long, some too short)

• unsatisfactory behavior in the grocery store (once the pastor stopped to chat when clearly she was in a hurry and had wasted her time; once the pastor discourteously failed to stop to chat because he was too much involved in his own affairs to notice her and so hurt her feelings)

• failure of the pastor to appoint her to the welcoming committee on the deacon board despite her demonstrated concern for the outreach of the church

• failure of the pastor to greet her properly in the Sunday morning reception line (sometimes too effusive, sometimes too perfunctory)

• failure to maintain proper ‘balance’ in choice of preaching texts (too often from the Gospels, too seldom from the Gospels)

• failure to ‘supervise’ selection of music for worship (too much contemporary music, too many hymns)

The above sampling from the list gives a fair sense of the tone and nature of the complaints and the consistent assignment of blame to the pastor. The problem that my friend brought to lunch, however, was not the complaints as such, but rather the way in which the woman would close each blaming session.

“But I forgive you, Pastor,” she would say as she completed her list. “I forgive you, Pastor, and I just want you to know that I don’t hold anything against you.”

“Now what,” my friend asked, waving his fork with considerable energy, “what in the name of good parish relationships—what in the sense of honest forgiveness am I supposed to say to that?”

What, indeed?

In this instance, “forgiveness” was a powerful tool that enabled this woman habitually to blame and criticize yet avoid relational accountability and consequences for her act.

The subversive use of pseudo-forgiveness as manipulation can tempt us all.

Remembering with you this week that “forgiving” someone for failing to meet my standards neither establishes that person’s guilt nor demonstrates my sainthood.


See you next week.


Gay

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Just three-eights of an inch?


April 15, 2012

Dear friends,

A friend who is a gifted carpenter was in town this week and stopped to visit me. While we were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee he told me a story that is worth thinking about.

He recently visited a young couple who were living in a new house. The front door stuck as they attempted to open the door for him, and stuck again as they attempted to close it behind him.

“Seems like that door isn’t working so well,” my friend observed.

"Yes, and it’s really frustrating,” the couple explained unhappily. “It’s the second door we’ve had installed and it’s still not fixed.”

During the visit the curious carpenter who lives inside my friend’s head thought, “Two doors? And neither fit? H-m-m. That looked like a pretty good door.” With the permission of the owners, he whipped out his trusty tape measure and examined the door and the frame, then fiddled with the lock. After a bit he smiled.

“You could buy a dozen doors,” he explained, “and none of them would work. You could replace the frame and the lock and the door still wouldn’t work. You see, the problem is the two-by-four that supports the frame and the door. It wasn’t installed properly. It’s not straight. You can’t see that two-by-four, but there’s the problem. I would guess by my rough measure that there’s at least three-eights of an inch difference between the top and the bottom.”

It is a fact that I can hit a nail with a hammer only by chance. I could not set a piece of framing lumber straight if I had two levels and three carpenters to help me. My natural sympathy is with the framer whose three-eights inch mistake resulted in a great deal of difficulty for the contractor and the home-owners as well. But my interest in the story was not a carpenter’s interest—I began thinking about the point of the story in respect to relationship building.

If there is something out of alignment in the way we structure relationships, we may go from person to person, from situation to situation, and still find ourselves stuck in relationships that just don’t work.

Faulty expectations of ourselves and others, impossible life goals, unwillingness to act out of a grace-shaped understanding of both ourselves and others—these are only a few of the ways we can set the frame of the relationship off by far more than three-eights of an inch.

Faulty use of forgiveness is particularly troublesome because, something like the framer’s error in my friend’s story, faulty use of forgiveness is difficult to see, and even more difficult to correct. [See the grocery store story 1/1/2012]

When you think of the way in which you frame relationships, how have you structured forgiveness? When are you obligated to forgive? When is forgiveness the responsibility of your partner? Your friend? Your employer? Your employee? Your parent or child or spouse?

And what does forgiveness look like? How do you define that thing Jesus said we were to do seventy times seven (at least)? What do think you do when you forgive? Is what you do different than what you wish that you did?

Thinking with you this week that it isn’t only builders of houses that make mistakes in the framing process.

See you next week.

Gay













Sunday, April 8, 2012

What if you find what you don't believe is there?


April 8, 2012

Good morning, friends,

It is Easter. Beyond my study window the early dawn light has begun to show faintly in the eastern sky.

The light must have been much like this that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene first glimpsed the empty tomb. She ran in frantic grief to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus was gone, stolen, she supposed, and taken secretly to an unknown place.

The disciples in turn ran to see the tomb. Finding it empty as Mary had reported, they entered and found the grave clothes in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped now empty, the linen that had bound His head lying by itself in a separate place. John tells us that having examined the empty tomb and the grave clothes, the disciples then fled, going to their own homes (John 20:10).

But Mary stayed. Standing before the empty tomb, she bent, weeping, and looked in. Two angels were sitting, one at the head and one at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had lain.

“Why are you weeping?” the angels asked Mary.

“Because they have taken His body away,” she sobbed, “and I don’t know where He is.”

And as Mary turned away from the tomb, she saw a figure standing only steps away from her.

“Why are you crying?” the man asked. “Who are you looking for?”

Mary, supposing the man to be the gardener, said, “If you took His body, tell me where you placed it, and I will take Him away.”

Then Jesus (for it was He), called her by name—“Mary,” He said gently. And then she knew Him. “Master (Raboni)!!” she cried in joyous recognition.

“Don’t touch me,” Jesus warned her. “I am not yet ascended to my Father. . . but go to the disciples and tell them. . . .” (John 20: 11-18)

For most of you reading this, John’s account of the resurrection is an old story, one you have known from childhood. But sitting here watching the early dawn light filtering through the clouds, I find joy in revisiting John’s account of Mary’s part in the drama.

Mary did not come to the tomb in triumphant “faith” expecting to find a glorious resurrected Messiah. In the early morning darkness Mary came in grief carrying spices for the anointing of the dead. It was the tortured, dead body of Jesus that she expected to find. But in coming—the best that she could think to do—while she searched for His broken body, the resurrected Jesus came to her. While Mary, weeping and confused, turned expecting the gardener she found herself looking instead into the radiant face of the resurrected Christ. It was when, expecting only the silence of death, she heard His familiar voice, back now from hell itself, calling her by name.

Sitting here in this early dawn light two thousand years later, I know that like Mary I often do not understand God’s plan. At times I too look despairingly into the emptiness and silence of defeated dreams and expect to see only death. But like Mary I too know the shock of Eastering surprise when, so to speak, I was looking in despair for the gardener, Jesus has appeared in resurrection life and called me by my name.  "He is risen," Matthew said, "just as he said he would." (Matt. 28:6) He is risen indeed.

Seeking with you to see and know Him more clearly in this coming year of Eastered life.

See you next week.

Gay






















April 8, 2012



Good morning, friends,



It is Easter. Beyond my study window the early dawn light has begun to show faintly in the eastern sky.



The light must have been much like this that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene first glimpsed the empty tomb. She ran in frantic grief to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus was gone, stolen, she supposed, and taken secretly to an unknown place.



The disciples in turn ran to see the tomb. Finding it empty as Mary had reported, they entered and found the grave clothes in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped abandoned, the linen that had bound His head lying by itself in a separate place. John tells us that having examined the empty tomb and the grave clothes, the the disciples then left, going to their own homes (John 20:10).



But Mary stayed. Standing alone before the empty tomb, she bent, weeping, and looked in. Two angels were sitting, one at the head and one at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had lain.



“Why are you weeping?” the angels asked Mary.



“Because they have taken His body away,” she sobbed, “and I don’t know where He is.”



And as Mary turned away from the tomb, she saw a figure standing only steps away from her.



“Why are you crying?” the man asked. “Who are you looking for?”



Mary, supposing the man to be the gardener, said, “If you took His body, tell me where you placed it, and I will take Him away.”



Then Jesus (for it was He), called her by name—“Mary,” He said gently. And then she knew Him. “Master (Raboni)!!” she cried in joyous recognition.



“Don’t touch me,” Jesus warned her. “I am not yet ascended to my Father. . . but go to the disciples and tell them. . . .” (John 20: 11-18)



For most of you reading this, John’s account of the resurrection is an old story, one you have known from childhood. But sitting here watching the early dawn light, I would like to revisit John’s account of Mary’s part in the drama.



Mary did not come to the tomb in triumphant “faith” expecting to find a glorious resurrected Messiah. In the early morning darkness Mary came in grief carrying spices for the anointing of the dead. It was the tortured, dead body of Jesus that she expected to find. But in coming—the best that she could think to do—while she searched for His broken body, the resurrected Jesus came to her. While Mary, weeping and confused, turned expecting the gardener she looked instead into the radiant face of the resurrected Christ. It was when, expecting only the silence of death, that she heard His familiar voice, back now from hell itself, calling her by name.



Sitting here in this early dawn light two thousand years later, I know that like Mary I often do not understand God’s plan. At times I too look despairingly into the emptiness and silence of defeated dreams and expect to see only death. But like Mary I too know the shock of Eastering surprise when while looking in despair for the gardener, Jesus comes in resurrection life and calls me by my name.



Seeking with you to see and know Him in this new year of Eastered life.



See you next week.



Gay






April 8, 2012



Good morning, friends,



It is Easter. Beyond my study window the early dawn light has begun to show faintly in the eastern sky.



The light must have been much like this that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene first glimpsed the empty tomb. She ran in frantic grief to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus was gone, stolen, she supposed, and taken secretly to an unknown place.



The disciples in turn ran to see the tomb. Finding it empty as Mary had reported, they entered and found the grave clothes in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped abandoned, the linen that had bound His head lying by itself in a separate place. John tells us that having examined the empty tomb and the grave clothes, the the disciples then left, going to their own homes (John 20:10).



But Mary stayed. Standing alone before the empty tomb, she bent, weeping, and looked in. Two angels were sitting, one at the head and one at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had lain.



“Why are you weeping?” the angels asked Mary.



“Because they have taken His body away,” she sobbed, “and I don’t know where He is.”



And as Mary turned away from the tomb, she saw a figure standing only steps away from her.



“Why are you crying?” the man asked. “Who are you looking for?”



Mary, supposing the man to be the gardener, said, “If you took His body, tell me where you placed it, and I will take Him away.”



Then Jesus (for it was He), called her by name—“Mary,” He said gently. And then she knew Him. “Master (Raboni)!!” she cried in joyous recognition.



“Don’t touch me,” Jesus warned her. “I am not yet ascended to my Father. . . but go to the disciples and tell them. . . .” (John 20: 11-18)



For most of you reading this, John’s account of the resurrection is an old story, one you have known from childhood. But sitting here watching the early dawn light, I would like to revisit John’s account of Mary’s part in the drama.



Mary did not come to the tomb in triumphant “faith” expecting to find a glorious resurrected Messiah. In the early morning darkness Mary came in grief carrying spices for the anointing of the dead. It was the tortured, dead body of Jesus that she expected to find. But in coming—the best that she could think to do—while she searched for His broken body, the resurrected Jesus came to her. While Mary, weeping and confused, turned expecting the gardener she looked instead into the radiant face of the resurrected Christ. It was when, expecting only the silence of death, that she heard His familiar voice, back now from hell itself, calling her by name.



Sitting here in this early dawn light two thousand years later, I know that like Mary I often do not understand God’s plan. At times I too look despairingly into the emptiness and silence of defeated dreams and expect to see only death. But like Mary I too know the shock of Eastering surprise when while looking in despair for the gardener, Jesus comes in resurrection life and calls me by my name.



Seeking with you to see and know Him in this new year of Eastered life.



See you next week.



Gay



































Sunday, April 1, 2012

Context and the question of forgiveness

April 1, 2012

Dear Friends,

We can, all of us, think what we cannot do, dream what is impossible, and long for something forever out of our reach.

What do you think that peculiar human trait is all about?

Whatever the ultimate significance of this trait, it certainly can confuse and complicate human relationships and make nonsense out of the semantics of forgiveness.

Last week I shared my story of the great tuna-fish-breakfast-food disaster at my local market in which a frail fragile white-haired woman accidentally bumped two end-of-aisle displays, and brought the greater proportion of both down under the feet of a hurried crowd of shoppers.

She was clearly distraught, and close to tears. She said repeatedly to the amiable young store employee, “I’m so sorry—please forgive me.”

I raised the question of the appropriateness of her request for forgiveness. Was forgiveness the issue?

Several of you gave thoughtful responses that I greatly enjoyed. But at risk of repetition, I want to restate the point I want you all to think about.

Clearly, it was appropriate for the woman to say that she regretted the confusion and mess she had made that the young employee was now responsible to clear up. I agree with that. I have little affection for people who make messes and take the clean-up work (and workers) for granted. But forgiveness?

Forgiveness for an aging frailty that made the mass of hurrying people and towering piles of products overwhelming? For a confused sense of the space available in the crowded aisle? For problems resulting from the combination of limited peripheral vision and unsteady balance and an unwieldy grocery cart? What is to forgive about any of this?

My brief glimpse of what I thought was a flash of her tears, however, raised another question for me. Suppose that woman carried an inner self-assigned level of performance that required of herself--regardless of age--eyes that never dimmed, balance that remained stable, and a sense of timing and space that enabled her to merge smoothly into the rapidly moving human traffic in which she was caught. If she was asking of herself what which she could not do, then, rightly understood, there was a forgiveness issue. She needed to forgive herself for asking of herself that which she could not do. When we condemn ourselves for “failure” in this sense, the issue is not faulty performance but rather the failure, or the refusal, to accept our limitations realistically and live with them gracefully.

As I watched from my safe island in the pharmacy, it seemed to me that it was the young stock boy who got it just right relationally.

He understood his job and the occasional disagreeable moments that went into it. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last mess he would be required to clear up. The chaos was not a personal issue for him. No one was “picking” on him, neither God nor the frail distraught woman who had engineered the disaster. The presence of a less-than-perfect customer appeared to fit comfortably into his reality of a less-than-perfect-world in which (I would guess) his less-than-perfect-self had a less-than-perfect job. His cheerful face seemed to say, “Less-than-perfect is the way it is--the world and people alike.  So…lots to regret, lots to clean up, and lots of reasons to get on with the job.”

But seeing the woman's distressed face, he added, “No problem.”

No problem, with cans of tuna fish and boxes of breakfast food all over the floor and irritable people trying to steer around the mess?

Wannabe wordsmith that I am, I think the stockboy had the issue spot on, but his words confused.

The woman had indeed done something that she regretted—and something he too regretted. Cleaning up the mess would not be fun. Both the woman and the stock boy were, I suspect, sorry about the mess and the consequent work it would require.

But forgive?

In the young man's gentle “no problem” I heard an awkward acceptance of the woman that lay beyond her acceptance of herself. In some wordless way he saw her in her limitations, and seeing her behavior in the context of those limitations, he saw nothing for which forgiveness was required. Here was a call for grace, not condemnation.

“No problem,” he said.

Thinking with you how difficult it is to see people as they are, not as I dream (or they dream) that they may be, and, knowing, accept with grace their limitations and my own.

See you next week.


Gay