Truth and Empathy

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We don’t walk in anyone else’s shoes. We can’t know or bear anyone else’s burdens. We don’t feel anyone else’s pain. We can only know our own. And that being said, because we all have burdens, it should never be a competition…i.e., my pain is worse than yours or I learned my lessons faster than you have, etc. Our journeys on this planet are unique to each individual. When I weigh out my troubles during prayer time, I am often overwhelmed by the ripple effect that our actions have on other human beings. I am aware that when I allow my personal struggles and fears to fog my eyesight, my behavior changes: less open, less empathetic, less loving. I also know how it affects me when others treat me in a closed, judgmental or hateful way, its like a punch in the stomach making it harder to bounce back. In response, I am  continually refocusing my prayers to help me include bringing openness, empathy and love to all  people, specifically to combat the growing deficit of these qualities in the world. I know all change begins with me. I decide the tone and tenor of my journey on this planet and it is my belief that being open, empathetic and loving will have an even bigger ripple effect than being closed, judgmental and hateful does.

When I start at this small level I can build up the skills necessary to bring out the big guns when I need them. What do I mean? Becoming skilled at being open, empathetic and loving has changed my whole perspective, hope begins to thrive and my own burdens become significantly less. A simplistic solution, I know…that’s why working hard on the simplest circumstances help gird my loins for the tougher circumstances. Knowing the back story of a truly vile person that is rooted in the most tragic of circumstances does change the level of judgement that I have about them. It has to. If I am trying to evolve as a person…IT HAS TO! It doesn’t mean that people who break the law get a free pass, or people who make bad choices don’t have consequences. It does mean that when I respond back to them in an open, empathetic and loving way…I take control of the situation and that is where the truth lies. I learn a lot from friends of mine who are defense attorneys. They hear another side to the story. They stand for people who have made mistakes, or who truly haven’t, all of whom need help facing a complex system. They advocate fairness in a way that the world outside the justice system does not (OK an aside here, I am not referring to the inequities of the present justice system…just for the importance of hearing the other side of every story). I also learn a lot from friends and others who are counselors, pastors, doctors, etc. who hear the “other” sides of the stories we would like to bypass so we can feel comfortable in smug judgments. I am also privileged to hear many stories that have staid the hand of my own judgment of others in my own life. What I know is this: most people are not inherently evil, most were taught to hate (I have to be truthful here, I say most because the jury is out on some who actually are evil in my mind…but then I am a work in progress). And when you offer openness, empathy and love in response, they do react differently. Change has to start somewhere.

Being open, empathetic and loving isn’t just reserved for the more heinous behaviors of the population either, it also allows me to share in the goodness and wonderful experiences I hear about every day too. The joy of another’s win, accomplishment, and kindness all give me hope and encouragement to keep me on the road that I am on. And for those of you who share in my faith, Jesus affirms my celebrations of openness, empathy and love as well in MT 7:1-18:

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite,  remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s or sister’s eye. “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand their children a stone when they ask for a loaf of bread, or a snake when they ask for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.

The lesson here is clear: spend less time judging, help is always available, and the only acceptable judgement is determining who the wolves are by the fruits that they bear.

For the sake of the few

I was reading a story in Genesis when the Lord has already decided that Abraham was to be the source of a great nation, and as he walks with him to check out the gravity of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, concerned of the imminent destruction of the two cities, wonders out loud to God and asks would he wipe away the innocent with the guilty. “what if there were 50 innocent people, would you wipe away the place rather than spare it for the fifty innocent?” God agrees to spare it for the sake of the 50. Abraham slowly whittles God down to only 10 people, and God agrees to spare the two cities for 10 innocents. Of course in the next story he sends angels to find the innocent, finds Lot and his wife and daughters and sends them away before God obliterates Sodom and Gomorrah…ouch.

In a time when corruption can seem so pervasive, when it appears that the good and innocent stand no chance against the evil in the world, I took up the notion to negotiate with God like my forefather Abraham did. In my prayer time, (which as an aside I actually visualize the conversation I’m having with God and am often surprised at what transpires…is it God talking? Not sure, but if I learn something I guess that’s what matters…so don’t judge) I asked God, “what of those of us who love you with all our hearts, minds and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves? Would you save this world for us or let us perish along with those who are evil?” To which God responded,

“You already have your salvation guaranteed into my kingdom, and not by your deeds but by sacrifice. As for this world, you have already been given all the necessary tools to keep this world thriving, what you do with them is entirely up to you.”

“What tools?” I asked. God responded bringing my attention to my bible which was open to the Gospels.

“It’s all there”

and then he pointed to my head and heart and replied

“and in here.”

What about all those who gather for worship? He answered gravely

“attendance at worship is for each individual, for their own sustenance…it is of no consequence to me. Love is all there is, and is the source of all that exists. It is neither restricted by doctrine or space.”

I replied, that I didn’t think the pope would be happy about that.

“Don’t underestimate my brother in Rome, he is working within a millennia of human drama. He understands that the foundation of my church resides in something far more substantial than rules and regulations.”

Not wanting to dwell on church dogma, I moved on.

So I asked him, “so what about prayer?” He pressed me further,

“What about it?”

I began to get that sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to like the answer, I responded, “when we pray to you for something why aren’t our prayers always answered?”

“I hear every one”, he replied, “but be careful, I answer in the course of things beyond your comprehension.”

I asked for greater understanding so God sighed and replied,

“I hear and answer all prayers, but not always in the way that you all want. The burden of omniscience is that I see beyond the moment into all future implications and interactions. Just because someone doesn’t get what they think they need or want in the moment doesn’t mean that I don’t love them or didn’t answer them. Alternatively, the burden of free will is that you can choose your own destiny and with that comes the consequences of choice, many of which aren’t always so obvious. Free will is a difficult concept, one can’t ask for freedom to choose their own destiny and then hide from it when it becomes something other than what they thought it would be, it gets too hard, or when they make a mess of things.  Additionally, I can’t just intervene whenever I want to, I need to be invited in as part of the equation. You must choose me in that moment to become involved and trust that I can help, that I will help, and have faith in the outcome. The hardest part for my children is to let go of control, and have faith in my answer, the kind of faith that knows that even the darkest moments can be  transformed into the greatest of lights. I will be always present to support, love and guide you, if that is your will. For it is my will that all my children thrive and fulfill their own destinies.”

The line about destiny spurred me on, “So what about our heavenly destiny?” To which God smiled, and said

“That is where the miracles happen. Your heavenly task is to do what I have created you to do, to use your gifts and don’t bury them and help others to do the same. Utilize all the lessons my Son gave you, take them to heart. If you do this, you can save your world many times over, all with your own personal flair and flavor.”

Worried, I asked, ‘What about those who choose evil instead?”

“I am the author of this play, My Son has already secured the ending. With free will, choice is always present. The balance may shift from time to time, but fear is fleeting and always offers an opportunity for champions of the light, remember, I know how the story ends, because I created you, I am your source, your home and your heart. That is why I say to you that my yoke is easy, my burden is light”

I suddenly felt sad, worried that I haven’t done enough with the gifts I’ve been given because I do feel worry and burdened a lot these days. He then got serious for a moment and said,

“And your heavenly task has nothing to do with a church, a philosophy, a country or a tribe. You asked me to open your eyes, and ears and so I did. You asked me for clarity and I gave it to you. Your path will be perfect and will lead you where you need to go not only because of your faith in me, but in yourself. No building or structure, occupation, job or livelihood will ever define or direct your destiny because it is who you are that is your gift, and everything that you do that is your destiny. Don’t complicate it dear child…I will guide you where you need to go, if you ask me to and I promise to hold your hand the whole time.”

I shook my head yes and took God’s hand and away we went.

IBS of the Soul

broken crossIt is a slippery slope when science modifies nature without regard for the consequences. As uncomfortable as it is talking about the mess we’ve made with our foodstuffs it pales in comparison to what humanity has done with the scripture that is meant to save the world. While I realize that the words of Jesus are subject to interpretation, like our modern made food stuffs, if we aren’t careful the words can be compromised. The torture for me is trying to understand and embrace the real truth. How can I have a better handle on the teachings of Jesus than anyone else? I’m just a person with a singular perspective. Yes, I have a degree in theology, I have devoted much of my life in the service of Christ and yet I have no greater claim on truth than anyone else who shares in the gift of grace. So here is my take. While it took me awhile to realize that the bread I was eating was poisoning and being rejected by my body, so it is with my soul rejecting some of what is being preached as the Word of God and not in the way that the Gospel challenges us and makes us uncomfortable to become better Christians, but more visceral. Like the body’s rejection of manufactured foods, manufactured faith is just as lethal. I’m speaking about the kind of faith that may taste good, but really isn’t good for you.

After writing and then deleting the start of this paragraph about 50 times, once again I have accept the fact that I may sound self-righteous and a bit arrogant…but there is so much violence and hatred even among Christians, that I just can’t stand it anymore. I think of it like this: the primary focus of our faith shouldn’t be on weaponizing it to keep people out, or beating down Satan in the way of pointing the finger at the evil of the moment. For the love of all that is Holy, people! Jesus fought that fight, so we don’t have to. Our only job….let me say that again, OUR ONLY JOB is to LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS JESUS LOVED US. Love feeds the soul and makes it stronger. Hatred, judgement, fear, anger, self-righteousness emaciates the soul and makes it weak.

Just think about it for a moment. Is the Body of Christ alive and well? Does it consist of only what you have a taste for? Scripture, like life, can’t be rewritten to appeal to the crazy pace and affluence of modern living. Our bodies become stronger when we exercise and put forth hard effort, even when it’s uncomfortable. Our immune systems become stronger when they are put to work naturally to fight off illness, and sometimes that means dealing with sickness or physical challenges. Our souls, demand the same kind of workout. Being a Christian isn’t always about consuming things that taste good, sometimes we just can’t eat candy or cake…we need vegetables and protein.

The Word of God, is Gods and when the Word is used to serve only individual purpose we poison them. In the end, the strength of the soul will be defined by how well we can love one another…of that I am sure.

When it is no longer the Bread of Life

bad breadI’ve often had people challenge me when I tell them that I can’t eat gluten. I’ve suffered through their derision and can see the contempt in their eyes as if I’m making it up or I’m a mindless fool jumping on the latest bandwagon of kooks who have challenged the health of many of the common foods that people have been consuming for years. From a logical perspective I get it, I really do. Beyond bread being a powerful metaphor for life, people have been consuming bread throughout the ages, and it never seemed to bother them (unless it was tainted with something, like poisonous rye that was an impetus for the Salem witch trials, or crazy King George) . Why now? Why me? Well, I know that I can’t tolerate gluten, or soy, or a host of other things. I’ve been tested. I have definitive proof…and it isn’t just the tests…it is what happens to me when I eat these foods, and even more importantly what happened when I stopped eating them. I had forgotten what it was like to feel good.

What begs the question is this: Could it be that the foods our forebears ate 50 years ago are not the same as the foods we eat today? And if not, why not? There will be plenty of discussion to be had over what those reasons may be, from genetically altered foods, chemicals in the soil, over processing, preservatives, poor eating habits etc., But I don’t think there is any argument as to whether there are major problems with today’s food stuffs, and if you don’t think there are any problems with foodstuffs of today then just stop reading, because no amount of science would convince you otherwise. I will avoid you as clearly as you avoid factual information. So let me be clear, just because we can’t decide, or know, or prove the exact cause of why modern foods are making us ill, doesn’t mean that the IBS and a host of other diseases that affects the masses are figments of our imagination. While the intentions of those in the food business may be good ones (and you know what they say about good intentions) we have messed with our food supply so much over the last few decades in the name of progress and improvement that I’m beginning to wonder if the food manufactured today is really food at all, the key word being manufactured. When natural foods are cross pollinated and genetically spliced and diced and when the list of ingredients in packaged food contains words that usually find their home in a chemistry class, then it’s just not really food in my book. I will always find it troubling to think we can do a better job at nature than God does. (As an aside, I am not a believer in the creation science movement, predestination, anti-science or a hippy. I do stand with those who acknowledge the reality of climate change.) Moreover, I am simply saying that as humans, we are limited in our ability to not only fully comprehend our natural world, we also lack the capacity to clearly understand the impact of our behavior on it and our future.

This is not a diatribe against science or using our big brains to make the job of sustaining life better. It is simply a strong suggestion that when we mess with mother nature, so aptly defined as a woman whom history has proven we just don’t fully understand, we can’t even begin to take in the full scope of the consequences of our actions. It is one thing to use our big brains to build better equipment to harvest or produce food, It is more than hubris to believe that we can do a better job than God can at the actual function of nature. Doesn’t the story of Genesis lay that out? We had easy, convenience, and perfection in the Garden and we wanted to venture on our own. I am OK with that, I think it is a blessing of evolution to strike out on our own. It is crossing the line, though, when we think we can change nature without consequences. Humanity has always struggled with the naked truth (pun intended).

I’ve waited a long time to publish this blog, mostly because I think the true meaning of what I’m saying will go right over people’s heads. Let me repeat, I am not anti-science. I know the desire of many scientists is to make life better for people. But I also see a growing tendency to avoid the consequences of the choices science makes, even when unintended. Avoiding culpability doesn’t make the problem go away, we can’t mitigate the damage without accepting responsibility first. Scientific advancement without careful consideration and appreciation of the impact it has on the future of the planet and my poor digestive system is just not acceptable any more. To be continued…

Against Perpetuities

the rule againstThere is an obscure rule in the law called, “The rule against perpetuities”, to which I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out in preparation for the bar exam, (even though my instructors almost guaranteed a question regarding it would certainly not appear on the bar exam…of course there was…they obviously didn’t know that when it comes to me and odds, I’m of the, “May the odds be ever in your favor, Hunger Games” ilk, and so I apologize to everyone else who took the test that day…) Sidebar concluded. Anyway, the rule against perpetuities basically placed a statutory limit as to how far a dead person will have control over the distribution of assets to future descendants.  While I still may have trouble with the particulars of the rule, I always thinks it’s a good idea to limit the power one has to control the future of another.

But how often do we hold on to, in perpetuity, our own sins, the sins of others and even sins projected onto future descendants who remain tethered to those past injuries or judgements?  It is takes so much energy to hold on to all that anger and is just as unfair to future generations who have to deal with the fallout.  I think if more of us looked to see what collateral damage there is to holding onto grudges, judgements, and condemnation, perhaps then refusing forgiveness wouldn’t be as common.  I think refusing forgiveness is the greatest weapon against the spread of the gospel. Think again if you feel immune, because you are not.  All of us have baggage, and if you think that holding on to it has no effect on those around you, you are also mistaken.

The only thing that I am sure of lasting into perpetuity is the love of God, the sacrifice of his Son and the need for God in my life.  That doesn’t mean that love’s affect can’t be blocked or inhibited.  Continual forgiveness of oneself and others is the key that will keep the door to the kingdom open. God gave us the key, the choice to keep it locked or unlocked every day,  as a matter of principle, is on us.

 

Empathy

unmerciful servant1This morning I was thinking about forgiveness and empathy, and the general lack thereof in the world. While I was pondering this notion, a nasty bug crawled across my path and I smashed it…yeah, the irony hit me right away.  Where was the forgiveness and empathy in this knee jerk response?  Of course I told myself that it was just a bug that had no place on my counter, that it was no big deal.  Perhaps it wasn’t.  But for a moment, I focused on the impulse I had when I saw the bug; I hated it, it was disgusting, I wanted to get rid of it and frankly, its death was of no consequence to me. It was that visceral reaction that caused a bit of an epiphany.  I realized that my response to that bug, although microcosmic, was probably close to the reaction that a lot of people have to that section of the population they simply can’t empathize with because they hate them, are disgusted by them, want to get rid of them and their death is really of no consequence to them at all. So often our lack of empathy is a result of a knee jerk response, programmed early by some uncomfortable experience. While the leap from insect to race, class, gender, ideology, nationality, or religion may seem huge…isn’t it really just a magnification of that same kind of automatic response?

I certainly didn’t have empathy for the insect in the moment and it did give me pause, because magnified, that initial gut response could be problematic.  I’d like to think of myself as a steward of God’s creation, and a disciple of God’s great message, but I don’t like bugs much. I will probably never like them and have difficulty with the empathy thing from human to insect. But I can appreciate their place in the food chain.  There is a place for everything under the sun right?  What becomes more difficult for me is the trouble that comes with finding empathy for our fellow humans, it should be so much easier and yet it isn’t. It is so hard to bypass that knee jerk response and try to reprogram ourselves. I suppose that is why Jesus demanded that we walk in someone else shoes before we pass judgement. When we view the world from another’s perspective the blinders come off and hopefully that knee jerk response is transformed.  Empathy is central to forgiveness.  When we accept another as important in God’s eyes and try appreciate that life from their perspective, perhaps we can recognize how similar we all are.  Jesus shows us this in this parable of the unmerciful servant:

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage and said, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back in full.’  Moved to compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount.  He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

Now, when his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply disturbed, and when to their master and reported the whole affair.  His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!’ I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then, is anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother or sister from his heart.

Today, let’s all work together to quell the knee jerk response that comes before the choice to empathize and forgive…life will be so much better as a result.

Catching Fire

catchingfireIt has been awhile, for good reason.  I am woman caught on fire.  In the last two weeks, the archdiocese I spent more than a decade working for, and the University where I received much of my training, released the lists of priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors.  The pastor of the first parish I worked for was on that list…and some who I have personal knowledge and experience of that should be on it were not.  While my relationships with some of these men did not fall within the perimeters of the alleged abuse, it was still abuse.  Suffice it to say that the rage I feel is based on countless power struggles during my tenure with the archdiocese that I believe impeded my ability to do the job that I was hired to do, called by God to do, and ultimately became the central reason I walked away from ministry.  Given my personality, I always knew that I would have some difficulty working for the Catholic Church.  I was an attractive, smart, strong willed, vivacious, intelligent woman.  For those of you who think I should also include egotistical and arrogant to the list…yeah well, given all that I sacrificed during those years, believe me, while my list of vices may be many, false humility and lack of objectivity aren’t part of the list.  Anyway, what matters is that given who I was and what the church was at that time, I knew the road would never be easy, and I took extra precaution to live a very pure life, to which I never strayed.  But I never thought for one minute that I would be immersed in such a deep struggle between the sacred and profane.  I can’t even regard them as people anymore at this point, because the manipulation and the mind games were so malevolent that even in the face of  knowing rationally that something was way off with whatever situation I faced at the time, often I was the one left feeling like the sinner and they, the saint.   I learned to work with blinders on just to survive, but I was too angry so I moved out of parish work to teaching after that, which didn’t turn out much better.   The suggestions that perhaps if I dressed more appropriately for my profession, the rumors that went around never would have started.  Shortly afterwards I cut off my hair.  I’ve included some pictures to prove I didn’t dress like a whore, nor did I dress like a nun either.

marytexastexas staffmarygregg

I thought long and hard about what details to share, but I don’t think that would serve any purpose other than just more titillating proof of the kind of abuse that occurs in an environment of ultimate power, and fueling even more  hatred won’t offer answers, just annihilation.   The girl I was at the time wouldn’t like it.  She would be embarrassed, humiliated and hurt, and just because she may have not been the typical theologian she deserved the respect she worked hard for.  Still, after all this time, I don’t hate the church…I worked with too many wonderful and spiritual people during my time there.  I do however hate the path the church has taken, and I can’t walk down that path anymore.  For me, I knew I needed help finding clarity…that was what therapy was for, and given that the therapist knew I had never been sexually active at the time, said that I had all the symptoms of someone who was the victim of sexual assault, only on a spiritual level.  She helped me see there is a much deeper dimension to the kind of power struggles I faced, and lost.  I didn’t appreciate until I read those lists of names what a deep toll being a victim of spiritual, sexual assault took on me.  I had many great plans and ideas back then, to manifest the Gospel in new and exciting ways, but I just got worn out and gave up.  Meeting my future husband and moving to the woods of Wisconsin saved my sanity, which remains tenuous because I live in crazy town (too many men, too little common sense).

It is my hope and prayer that Pope Francis can not only clean up the mess, but begin to heal the many wounds caused by the hierarchy.   But until I see evidence of that change, my faith life remains catholic…with a small “c”.