Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Perils of Being Honest

So did you ever vote for Obama?
Have you traveled from West Africa recently?
Have you stopped beating your spouse?
Have you looked at porn in the past month?
Did you cheat on a test or a paper?

We so want to think of ourselves as truthful, honest people.  But even a few simple questions like these are enough to make many of us uncomfortable.  Turns out, our definitions of ‘truth’ can become rather elastic, and our self-requirements for honesty can be selective at best.

We have a complicated relationship with truth.  On the one hand, we are taught from earliest years to always tell the truth.  We are told as students to turn in work that is our own, and not work that has been copied from someone else and presented as our own.  We know that bearing false witness breaks one of the Ten Commandments.  We implicitly trust news sources and ‘authorities’ and even friends and our spouses to be telling the story accurately.  Our society finds not telling the truth so threatening that there are laws against it.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to make a liar out of an otherwise upstanding, church-going citizen.  Most people lie constantly, and even about the most inane things.  If there might be negative consequences to telling the truth, then one might find it in one’s interest to mislead the person or institution or application doing the asking.  Sometimes we avoid telling the truth, not with an outright lie but by not saying anything at all.  These things happen in relationships, they happen in business, they happen amongst professionals, they happen with respect to law enforcement, they happen in churches - especially in churches.  We tend to be in favor of the truth, just so long as someone else has to be telling it.  We will happily tell ‘the truth’ if it is to our advantage to do so.  But if doing so will in some way disadvantage us, then we will find a way to keep quiet if we can, and lie if we must.  Full disclosure: been there, done that.

In junior high school (‘Middle School’ for my younger readers), there was a group of boys in the back who habitually passed answers to tests back and forth to each other.  Everybody knew that this was ‘cheating’ and that it should be stopped.  But nobody, myself included, ‘told the truth’ and reported what was going on.  We were afraid of being labeled a snitch or worse, were afraid of being beaten up after school.  We all looked the other way.  And for all the energy put into this nefarious behavior, I don’t think it actually improved their academic trajectory.  Even so, the boys in the back learned a very important lesson, namely that threats can buy impunity.

There’s the story of the boy who was exposed to porn and then sexually abused at a relative’s house.  This boy was afraid of what would happen if he told the truth.  He was afraid that no one would believe him.  He was afraid that it was his fault.  He was afraid that if other people found out what happened that he would be called a ‘fag’ and that he would lose his friends.  He was afraid that he might actually be a ‘fag’, but it was too dangerous ever to talk with anybody about it.  So he kept quiet.  This boy was a Christian, and he grew up to become a respected Christian leader.  But he struggled inside for years as he tried to keep from himself and everyone else what happened to him so long ago.  And decades later, when he finally did summon the courage to get help and confront and tell the truth about his past and its implications for his present, he found that his worst fears actually did happen.  He was rejected by his spouse.  He was labeled ‘gay’ and shunned by many of his friends, most of whom were also Christian leaders.  And despite the rhetoric to the contrary in society and the loud protestations on the part of Christians as to how terrible lying is, the lesson this man has learned from all the people around him is that continuing to lie might actually have been preferable to telling the truth.

I teach courses in history and theology.  There are a number of students at one of the schools where I teach who come out of academic backgrounds that did not enforce any policies against plagiarism.  When they get to my class, however, they find they have to write a term paper.  Invariably, a number of them do what they have always done before, which is go online, copy a paper from a website, reformat it a bit, put their name on it and then turn it in as if it is their work.  They get caught every time.  They don’t realize that their lecturer is pretty good at recognizing that the flawless 19th century English used throughout the paper or the specialized vocabulary found throughout is rather beyond the reach of the student whose name is on it.  Just saying.  Moreover, I can type any phrase from the paper in question into Google and the source comes right up.  It’s that easy.  So the student gets a ‘0’, which is precisely what I said would happen in my course syllabus if a case of plagiarism presented itself to me.  And almost every time I have a parade of anguished students come to my office claiming they had no idea that this was plagiarism (never mind I had gone over in detail what plagiarism is and what the penalty for doing it was going to be).   Some are offended that I gave them a ‘0’ and demand that I give them a higher grade (for the work they did?).  Some say that this is how they have always written papers and they have always gotten good grades before(!).  Almost all of them demand that I allow them to redo the assignment.  Often there is a delegation of offended plagiarizers who troop off to the dean’s office to complain about the way I’ve taught the course and the terrible injustice of my grading and to insist that they be given another chance.  I will then usually be asked by the dean to give these poor students another chance.  I grumble but comply.  And then watch in amazement as some of the students run off and plagiarize again.  Oh, and did I say that this was a Christian school?

I was the pastor of a large Protestant church.  I had struggled for several years with depression, though it was now being controlled with medication.  At a leadership retreat with my elders, I shared with them something of my struggle, thinking that by being vulnerable, I was setting an example for our leaders to follow.  I was trying to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable, too.  I was of the persuasion that we cannot find healing for those things we cannot admit.  Imagine my surprise when a delegation of my elders came to my office the next week and strongly suggested that I step down and go away.  Evidently, depression was too shameful a thing for a pastor to have.  At any rate, these elders didn’t want to have anything to do with a Christian pastor who was less than perfect.  And I learned that if one is in a leadership position in the church, honesty about one’s weaknesses or struggles is not something anybody is interested in.  It took two more years, but eventually these elders succeeded in making it untenable for me to continue.  It was pretty awful.

Turns out that much of the trouble I’ve found myself in at different points in my life came as a consequence of being honest.  And if I were in the slightest way tempted to be cynical, the take-aways from this would seem to be
1. Turn a blind eye to people around you who are doing wrong because they might hurt you.
2. Don’t tell anybody what you are really struggling with because she will turn around and use it against you.
3. Don’t hold others to any standard of truth-telling because they will resent you and make your life very difficult.
4. You should lie about who you are, what you are thinking and how you are feeling; in other words, tell the people around you what they want to hear.  Almost nobody wants their life being messed up by the truth.
I don’t think I will try to resolve this.  It is enough to point out the significant gulf between our rhetoric and our reality.  And I must say that I am not very impressed (any more) about all the faux spiritual language tossed around by those claiming special nearness to the Almighty.  Yes indeed, Jesus did say, ‘I am…the truth’, and, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’  But the most religious, the most hyper-spiritual have tended to be the most judgmental and truth-suppressing people I’ve ever come across (I allow that my experience may not be yours).  Such people make the Church, which Christ has designed and called to be the safest place for sinners on the planet, into a museum of the holy, with themselves on prime display.  A twelve-step meeting full of drunkard, drug or sex addicted ‘sinners’ is closer to the kingdom of God than many self-described ‘churches’ full of the so-called saved.

Jesus suffered for being honest, more than any of us can ever know.  So did the apostles.  And the martyrs.  So has anyone who has ever wrestled with denying oneself, picking up one’s cross, and following in Jesus’ footsteps.  The pressure on us to compromise the truth in all its manifestations is immense.  At every new point we are confronted with a new opportunity to corrupt the truth – the truth about ourselves, about our neighbor, about our past, about our God.  And yet this is where the battle presses home, in my life and in yours, in my present and in yours.  Not just every day, but every moment.  And it comes down to this with every point of awareness – will I be a man who lives the truth?  Or will I be a man who lives a lie?  I’ve lived long enough to know that these are the hardest questions I will ever face.  And I suspect they will be your hardest questions as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Verbal Abuse in Marriage – The Hidden Cancer

'A time to keep silent and a time to speak.'
Ecclesiastes 3:7b

With exceptions, verbal abuse in any relationship is about control.  It is often a highly successful strategy to excerpt power over another because the abused partner often assumes that his or her spouse is ‘on the same page’ as them in terms of mutual goals, mutual values and mutual perspectives.  The abused partner often can’t imagine that his/her spouse doesn’t share the same mutual affection and concern for each one’s mutual best.  The abused spouse considers their relationship to be about love, partnership and mutuality; the abusing spouse is rather all about control.

What follows is a list of characteristics of a marriage scarred by verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse is usually perpetuated by a man towards his wife, although a wife may also verbally abuse her husband.

Verbal abuse against a spouse is almost never committed in public; rather it’s done in secret when the two are alone.  Only the partner of the abuser hears it.

Verbal abuse usually becomes more intense over time.  The partner either adapts and more pressure is needed to accomplish the same results, or the partner begins to resist and greater intensity is needed to maintain control.

The verbal abuser consistently denies, discounts and/or minimizes the partner’s perception of the abuse.

The verbal abuser invalidates his/her partner’s perspective, experience, feelings, and ultimately his/her person in an effort to maintain control and power over the spouse.

One does not enter into a relationship expecting to be verbally abused.  As a result, the experience can be wholly disorienting.  One may feel one is going crazy.  ‘How can he/she say these things about me and treat me this way, when he/she doesn’t treat anybody else like this?’  One begins to doubt one’s experience, or one’s perception.  One begins to believe what the abuser says about them or about the circumstances.  One feels verbally beaten into submission.  One will often do whatever the spouse is demanding, however demeaning, just to stop the abuse.  One feels isolated and afraid to mention their experiences to anyone else because one is afraid that no one will believe me.

When verbal abuse is perpetuated by a wife against a husband, there is often, along with the usual disorientation that accompanies this abuse, a great sense of shame felt by the man that that hinders his ability to admit that he is being treated this way or that he might need help.

Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship (2010), gives this guide to help women and men recognize if they are in a verbally abusive relationship:

Verbal abuse is hostile aggression.  The abuser is not provoked by his (her) mate. The abuser may consciously or even unconsciously deny what he (she) is doing.  In any case, he is not likely to wake up one day and say, “Oh my!  Look at what I have been doing.  I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it anymore.”  No one but the partner experiences it.  Usually only the partner can recognize it.  The aggression can be recognized because the impact of the behavior on the victim is a hurtful one.

Generally the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse rests with the partner of the abuser, because the abuser is not motivated to change.  However, the partner may have difficulty recognizing the abuse for what it is because she (he) is led to doubt her (his) feelings.  For example, if she (he) feels hurt or upset by something her (his) mate has said and she (he) expresses her (his) feeling, saying, “I felt bad when you said that,” the verbal abuser¸ instead of recognizing her feeling and responding appropriately, will reject and invalidate her (his) feelings by saying something like, “I don’t know what you are talking about.  You’re too sensitive [or selfish, or you are avoiding responsibility, etc.].  The partner then doubts her (his) own perceptions.  Why?  In childhood, like many, she (he) may have been taught that her (his) feelings were to be ignored.  Feelings, however, are essential to our being, because they are the criteria by which we determine if something is wrong or unsafe.

When the partner can recognize and validate her (his) feelings, she (he) can begin to recognize verbal abuse.  In other words she (he) might say:
            I feel hurt, I am being hurt.
            I feel diminished, I am being diminished.
            I feel unrecognized, I am being unrecognized.
            I feel ignored, I am being ignored.
            I feel made fun of, I am being made fun of.
            I feel discounted, I am being discounted.
            I feel closed off, I am being closed off.
            [I feel minimized, I am being minimized.
I feel invalidated, I am being invalidated.]
If the partner shares her (his) feelings with the perpetrator of the aggression, you can be absolutely certain, he (she) will invalidate them….  The partner may then doubt the truth of her (his) own perceptions.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 24-25)

Verbal abuse covers a spectrum of behaviors, and comes from a spectrum of personalities.  Evans states that the verbal abuser may be any combination of the following traits:
Likely to blame his/her mate for his (her) outbursts or actions
Unpredictable (you never know what will anger him/her)
Unaccepting of his/her mate’s feelings or views
Unexpressive of warmth and empathy
Silent and uncommunicative in private or, frequently, demanding or argumentative
A ‘nice guy’ to others
Competitive towards his/her partner
Quick with comebacks or put-downs
Unexpressive of his [her] feelings

Usually the partner of a verbal abuser finds it difficult to see her/his mate objectively and clearly.  This is especially true if she/he does not realize that her mate is, so to speak, in a different reality.  He/she is not seeking mutuality.  He/she is seeking to control and dominate.  His/her behavior may be so changeable that his/her partner is kept off balance and is confused without knowing it.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 39-40)

So verbal abuse is more than just using harsh words; it’s more than the normal way couples quarrel.  It is, in fact, an entirely different way of relating, with the abusing spouse making use of  different means and different ends than those assumed by the abused partner.  According to Evans (40), relationships marked by verbal abuse share the following characteristics:

Often present                           Often lacking
Inequality                                Equality
Competition                             Partnership
Manipulation                           Mutuality
Hostility                                   Goodwill
Control                                    Intimacy         
Negation                                  Validation

Combinations of these dynamics are embedded in the very fabric of the relationship itself, making it very difficult to pull out one without unraveling the whole.  Without any realization on the part of the abuser, the relationship will ultimately fail, or continue to be enabled by the abused partner who continues to believe the abuser above what his/her heart is telling them.

A pattern of verbal and emotional abuse may continue in a relationship for a very long time.  The abused partner may believe the abuser’s constant accusations that he/she is only getting what they deserve.  The abused partner may feel that the consequences of trying to put a stop to the pain will be worse than his/her ongoing attempts to manage and live with the abuse.  The abused partner may be an accommodator, trying everything he/she knows to appease the abusing partner in hopes that the abuse will finally stop.  The abused partner may feel he/she will lose too much by leaving the abusing partner.  And/or the abused partner may be in denial, choosing to believe that it isn’t so bad.

In relationships where one or both partners profess to be Christians, the abused partner may feel obligated to ‘love’ the abusing spouse, to endure his/her partner’s abuse for the sake of Christ and for the sake of their family, to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the second mile’, to submit to the other ‘as unto the Lord,’ to love his wife ‘as Christ loves the Church,’ to forgive the abusing spouse again and again and again in hopes that their ‘Christian attitude’ towards their abusing spouse will result in the abusing spouse ‘getting it’ and ‘repenting’.  In my experience, I’ve never seen these ‘Christian’ responses lead to anything other than increasing contempt.  For this reason, abused spouses often feel trapped between the intolerable verbal abuse they are experiencing and what they think ‘Christian love’ demands of them in their marriage.  And because no one on the outside sees the abuse or understands the increasingly awful dynamic that characterizes their relationship, the abused partner is left to make these choices alone, and the abusing spouse is free to carry on with impunity.

Whatever its causes, and for whatever reason it is tolerated, verbal abuse is a cancer that metastasizes to affect the entire relationship.  Verbal abuse will kill a relationship, sooner or later.  Sadly, because other personality factors are often at work in the abusing spouse, even when confronted they will almost never acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.  And if the abuser cannot or will not admit their role in their marriage, there is nothing that can be done to save it.  Divorce in this case becomes the only way the cycle of abuse can be stopped.  The Bible says that God hates divorce.  And for good reason.  But there are things worse than divorce.  And if the abusing spouse refuses to become a partner in repentance with the abused spouse, then divorce merely makes official what has already happened as a result of the abuse.

May God spare you from ever finding yourself in a verbally-abusive relationship.  And should the descriptions above describe something of your own experience, may God give you the courage to get help and to take the steps you need to take to get out of that toxic relationship before it destroys you.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Choosing the One Thing Needful

I’ve noticed this clamoring fear in my heart, this fear that some piece of slander will turn friends into enemies, that malice will finish the grand undoing of my life.  I find it so very easy to place myself on that same field of play, to try my hand at the very same game of undoing to others what took decades to do, of giving as good as I get.  But this is the way of death.  There is no love in treating someone else this way.  Joy flees, as does peace.  Patience evaporates and kindness is seen as a weakness.  Goodness ceases to matter, and gentleness is taken as a mark of impotence.  Self-control is cast aside as a useless obstruction to what the self should do for itself.  It’s a prep school for hell.

I find myself also thinking that if only I still lived in a home with a family full to the brim with the fruit of love and respect, rather than as a boarder in another person’s house.  If only I was back in Kenya teaching eager students rather than spending long hours pulling weeds and trimming trees and shrubs.  If only I lived in a place where people knew me and where I belonged rather than in a foreign land where I must start everything from scratch.

But I am reminded today that this sort of thinking comes from an unhealthy, unhealed place.  I am reminded today that none of this is needful.  I am reminded today that there are bigger things that God is concerned about in my life, things which transcend my current broken family, my current state of exile away from what was my life in Kenya. 

I’ve been reading a kind of autobiography by Elder Porphyrios, Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, and today’s pages were like a cool drink in the middle of a long hot day of hard work.  Let me share with you some things that are meaningful to me today:

Let us love Christ and let our only hope and care be for Him.  Let us love Christ for His own sake only.  Never for our sake.  Let Him put us wherever He likes.  Let Him give us whatever He wishes.  Don’t let’s love Him for His gifts….  What we should say rather is: ‘My Christ, whatever Your love dictates; it is sufficient for me to live within Your love.’

 As for myself, poor soul…what can I say…I am very weak.  I haven’t managed to love Christ so very fervently and for my soul to long for Him.  I feel that I have a very long way to go.  I haven’t arrived at where I want to be; I don’t experience this love.  But I’m not discouraged.  I trust in the love of God.  I say to Christ: ‘I know I’m not worthy: Send me wherever Your love wishes.  That’s what I desire, that’s what I want.  During my life I always worshipped You.’

 When I was seriously ill and on the point of leaving this life, I didn’t want to think about my sins.  I wanted to think about the love of my Lord, my Christ, and about eternal life.  I didn’t want to feel fear.  I wanted to go to the Lord and to think about His goodness, His love.  And now that my life is nearing its end, I don’t feel anxiety or apprehension, but I think that when I appear at the Second Coming and Christ says to me: Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?  I will bow my head and I will say to Him: ‘Whatever you want, my Lord, whatever your love desires.  I know I am not worthy.  Send me wherever your love wishes.  I am fit for hell.  And place me in hell, as long as I am with You.  There is one thing I want, one thing I desire, one thing I ask for, and that is to be with You, wherever and however You wish.’
Elder Porphyrios (1906-1991)

I try to give myself over entirely to the love and worship of God.  I have consciousness of my sinfulness, but I live with hope.  It is bad to despair, because someone who despairs becomes embittered and loses his willingness and strength.  Someone who has hope, on the contrary, advances forward.  Because he feels that he is poor, he tries to enrich himself.  What does a poor man do?  If he is smart, he tries to find a way to become rich.

 And so in spite of the fact that I feel weak and that I haven’t achieved what I desire, I nevertheless do not fall into despair.  It is a consolation to me, as I’ve told you, that I don’t cease to try continually.  Yet I don’t do what I want to do.  Pray for me.  The point is that I cannot love Christ absolutely without His grace.  Christ does not allow His love to show itself if my soul does not have something which will attract Him.

 And perhaps I lack that something.  And so I entreat God and say, ‘I am very weak, O Christ.  Only You with Your grace will be able to allow me to say along with Saint Paul the Apostle, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me.

 This is what preoccupies me.  I try to find ways to love Christ.  This love is never sated.  However much you love Christ, you always think that you don’t love Him and you long all the more to love Him.  And without being aware of it, you go higher and higher!  [Wounded By Love (Denis Harvey, publisher: Limni, Evia, Greece, 2005), 97-99]

It is enough to be with You.  To be where You wish me to be.  To do what You wish me to do.  To go where You wish me to go.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Precious and Life-Giving Cross

17th Century Bulgarian icon of the Exaltation of the Precious an Life-Giving Cross

Celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross today has been a powerful conclusion to a difficult and necessary week of heart-work.  I made the decision to divorce my wife in March of this year after years of trying everything I knew to do to save our relationship.  The legal process crept along at its own pace over the Spring and Summer.  These were the ‘alone times’ for me.  It was good that I was working long hours behind the front desk at the local Y and out in a friend’s garden doing hard physical labor.  Part of me could not imagine that this was happening to me.  Part of me was in deep grief.  Part of me was feeling profoundly disoriented.  And part of me was very, very angry.  All of this took a lot of energy.

Word that the divorce had been granted came in a letter from my lawyer the third week of July.  I took my wedding ring off, the one that I had said thirty two years before represented the promises that I was making to my bride.  And now, I was no longer in a position even to try to keep those promises.  I had been told to leave.  I believe she would say that I had broken her trust.  And that was that.

Over four very painful years, I learned the hard way that I can’t change anyone else’s thinking or behavior; I can only change mine.  I can own my sins, shortcomings, failings, wrongs, hurtful words, and I can ask forgiveness, and I can work on changing what is wrong in my life.  But I cannot make another person forgive if they choose not to.  Twelve-step programs make use of the ‘serenity prayer’, which says simply, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’  Very easy words to say.  But I have found them almost impossible to put into practice.  Serenity remains elusive.  But rather than shove this under the rug, my awareness of this gives me an opportunity to learn important things about me.

The Cross as the Tree of Life

One important thing I’ve learned is that I am very much still governed by this world’s understanding of justice.  Outraged cries for justice are all over our news and media.  From race-relations and Ferguson to the agitation for gay marriage to immigration reform.  This concern for ‘justice’ has contributed to the staggering number of lawyers who are all eager to help this person or that cause redress this unfairness or that imbalance, this discrimination or that miscarriage of justice.  It’s one thing to realize that we live in a litigious society.  But we also seem to be hard-wired as Americans to be litigious people – hyper-sensitive to how we are being treated, quick to take offense, holders of grudges, taking pleasure in revenge, wanting to get our due while ensuring that the other gets his/hers.

The justice that I am tempted towards (feel entitled to?) is something very different from what I found myself singing/chanting in Church today.  One of the hymns of the feast goes like this:

Come, all you nations,
Let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree,
By which eternal justice has come to pass!
For he who deceived Adam by a Tree
Is caught by the lure of the Cross;
And he who held under his tyranny the creature endowed by God with royal dignity
Is brought down in a headlong fall.
The serpent’s venom is washed away by the blood of God,
And the curse of just condemnation is undone
When the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.
For it was fitting that the Tree
Should be healed by a Tree,
And that by the Passion of the passionless God
What was wrought on the Tree should destroy the passions of the man who was condemned.
But glory to your dread dispensation for our sakes, O Christ the King,
Through which you have saved us all,
Since You are good and the Lover of mankind!

I am learning many things.  God’s ‘eternal justice’, illuminated by ‘the blessed Tree’ is different from the ‘justice’ that I have caught myself crying out for.  If someone slaps me in the face, calls me names, or speaks half-truths or untruths about me, my impulse to slap back, put down or otherwise defend myself is exposed here to be precisely the strategy of Satan.  Jesus, the ‘Just One’, said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.’ (Matthew 5:38-41)  Jesus on the cross said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34)  Jesus did not cry out for justice, or for revenge.  He did not revile the people who were hurting him. He did not cut off the ones who betrayed him.  He forgave them.  He forgave them

Jesus did not wait for them to ‘get it’.  Jesus did not wait for them to convert.  Jesus did not wait for them to show some signs of remorse.  Jesus did not wait for them to fulfill some sort of repentance inventory.  Jesus forgave them.  Paul nails it precisely when he says, ‘For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)

Let me complete the circle; or rather, let Jesus complete it.  It’s all right there in the gospel that I presumably believe:  ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you [emphasis mine], love one another.  By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  Simply put, I am called to love.  To love as Jesus loved me.  Without condition.  Even if it is never acknowledged, much less returned.  It's simply what He has done.  And He shows me how.

It should surprise no one that I feel wronged, that I feel mistreated, that I feel misunderstood and misrepresented, that I feel abandoned.  This is old ground.  And, I don’t need to apologize for feeling this way.  It happened.  Things were said that are regrettable.  Things were done that are regrettable.  Things were not said and not done that were regrettable.  ‘Friends’ of many years simply disappeared.  I would lie if I said it didn’t hurt.

Ethiopian Orthodox icon

However, I do not need to stay in this place.  This day that we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross teaches me that Jesus meets me and my role in His crucifixion, not with anger and retribution and revenge, but with forgiveness.  It’s like His response to the woman caught in adultery.  ‘Moses says “Stone her!”  What say You?’  And of all the sons of Adam ever born, Jesus is the only one who has a right to pick up that first stone.  But he doesn’t.  And when her accusers slink away, shamed when their hearts are simply exposed for what they are, Jesus refuses to condemn her and instead forgives her and charges her to go and sin no more.  I am met with the same love, touched by the same forgiveness, and so are you.  Freed from my very heavy burden, I am freed from the need, indeed the compulsion to demand justice for the other.  I can, instead, forgive.  Because I am forgiven.  I can turn the other cheek.  I can give with no expectation of getting back.  Because I am no longer dependent on that person to give me what I need.  I am getting it from the Lord instead.

This is not a new lesson for me, but a very old one applied to a painfully present situation.  But there is a further application that has been brought to my attention this week in conversation with friends.  I found myself throughout the week senselessly spinning my tires, feeling that wrong had been done and that I had been wrongfully banished to the nether regions.  This sort of thinking becomes unhealthy very quickly, and I sought to remedy my wrong thinking by forgiving my former wife again and again.  It wasn't working. Mainly because the old way of ‘forgiving’ that I learned in my former life was to apply ‘forgiveness’ to the wrong without understanding the what and the why and how of what was going on.  Such ‘forgiveness’ was not real forgiveness.  It just kicked the can down the road for me to deal with it again when I caught up with it.

A friend helped me see this week that my feelings were not something that I should repress or try to change.  They are what they are.  Instead, they are giving me an opportunity to learn something about myself.  For example, if I am feeling wronged, if I am feeling misrepresented, if I am feeling abused, then let these become a mirror. What do my feelings, what does my reaction tell me about myself?  Have I done wrong in this case?  Have I misrepresented what was going on in this case?  Have I abused or treated, in this case her, in a way other than with love?  I begin to see my own flaws emerge.  In each case, the pain, the hurt, the wrong goes both ways.  I need not only to forgive, but to be forgiven.

So I find myself back in that place where I started, a divorced man, feeling all the pain that that brokenness implies.  But I am freed from the need to blame, freed from the need to exact revenge, freed from the need to make sure ‘my narrative’ gets out there.  Real wrong was done.  And this wrong has had terrible consequences.  And I (and my children and others) feel them profoundly.  But I can forgive.  And I need not be defined by my failure. Or hers.  I choose, instead, to be defined by the cross.

As the Cross is lifted on high,
It urges all of creation
To praise the undefiled Passion of Christ,
Who was lifted up on it.
For by the Cross He killed the one
Who killed us,
And brought us back to life when
We were dead. 
He adorned us in beauty,
And in His compassion made us
Worthy to live in heaven.
Therefore we rejoice and exalt His name,
And magnify His infinite condescension.

And one last hymn from the day, this one by ‘John the Monk’:

Your precious Cross, O Christ God,
Which Moses of old prefigured in
His own person
When he overthrew Amalek and
Put him to flight;
Which David commanded to be [venerated],
Calling it your footstool.
This Cross we sinners [venerate]
Today with unworthy lips,
And praise You, Who deigned
To be nailed upon it,
And we cry to You:
‘With the thief make us worthy of Your Kingdom, O Lord!’

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Money Is More Important than People

I have been working for the past 15 months at a not-for-profit fitness center.  The pay has been one notch above minimum wage.  The hours have been random, sometimes very early, sometimes very late, sometimes 3 hours a day, sometimes 13.  But I have had great people to work with, and I have really appreciated the site manager and the several directors who have responsibility over our panoply of programs.  My task has been to man the front desk, answer all questions, deal with all issues, and essentially be the cheerful face of our organization.  These things I have done with increasing competence as the year has gone by.

I didn’t have much of a choice in terms of employment when I returned to the US in May of 2013 on what I thought was a short furlough.  No one was interested in giving me a job in my area of academic expertise (um, that would be Early Modern British History) or professional experience (instructor at the undergraduate and graduate level in Christian theology and history).  And even when I lowered my sites to any job (grocery store stock guy, landscaping companies, ditch digging, etc.), nobody was hiring.  Eventually, the county certified me to substitute teach.  But I quickly discovered that I only knew how to teach students who wanted to learn, and had no idea how to cope with students who could care less.  So when this organization offered me part-time work with the option to pick up additional hours as a sub, I jumped at it.  And here I am, 15 months later, towards the end of what will be my last week on the job.

I found out this past Monday that I am being downsized.  I do not blame the organization for the employment model it has adopted or the policy choices it has made.  It looks to me like they are following so-called ‘best practice’ – doing what such organizations think they must in order to survive.  But while such ‘practice’ may allow the organization as such to survive, and may allow the people at the top of the food chain in that organization to continue to do their thing and draw their salary, it feels like the rest of us are viewed as expendable.  I guess this proves that we are.

My first clue about this utilitarian stance towards employees came early.  None of us hourly employees are allowed to work so much as to obligate the organization to pay us benefits.  Evidently, more than 30 hours a week throws the benefits switch.  As a result, there are about 10 of us part-time employees, some of whom are students, others of whom are part-time by choice, and others of us who would like to be full-time if we could.  Because I could not work full-time hours even if I wanted to, and because I’ve been paid an hourly wage (I got a raise at the beginning of summer from $8.50 to $11/hour because I was given a ‘management’ portfolio) without benefits, I was forced to find my own insurance.  If the Affordable Care Act had not been in place, I would have been numbered among the nation’s uninsured.  The policy I did find cost nearly $500/month.  Given that I make maybe $1100-$1300/month aggregate from my several part-time jobs, I think you can see why insurance would have been untenable for me without help.  A $390/month subsidy from the ACA has saved me from that debacle.

So I’ve been in a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not provide benefits, a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not pay a living wage.  I’ve watched news reports on TV about fast-food employees going on strike to demand wages that would enable someone who works full-time to actually live off their wages without having to resort to food stamps or Obamacare or so-many other supplemental jobs that they do nothing but work so their kids can go to school or have something to eat or, in my case, so I can pay off my daughter’s university loans so she can start her life not saddled by immense debt.  I now have considerable empathy for all those distressed fast-food workers.  I am them.

And now, because our mother organization has racked up a sizeable amount of debt (though our branch actually turned a profit this past year), the directors have decided that everybody (not just them but us as well) must make draconian cuts in their budget.  One of our program directors saw her entire position done away with (and since she was the director of our fitness programs, it seems to me an odd move for a fitness center to get rid of their fitness director, but who am I?).  Our own director, trying to blunt the force of such mandated-from-above ‘cost-saving measures’, is moving the former fitness director into the job that I now hold, that of front desk manager.  And since she will now be filling a 40 hour week at the front desk, and since there are 9 other part-time front-desk staff, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that there are not enough hours to go around.

I am not being forced out, or fired, or relieved.  But as a ‘part-time’ employee, my hours are being reduced from about 40 hours/week to maybe 5.  So the reason I took this job – make enough money so that I can survive until I can hopefully return to my ‘real’ job in Kenya – is no longer viable.  I handed in my resignation on Tuesday so as to give my successor a free hand in creating a front desk schedule that will keep as many of my other colleagues at least as they have been in terms of hours.  Because I, at least, have the hope of a potential new position that will enable me to return to my teaching life overseas, I’ve not been freaking out.  But should that potential position not work out, I’m in trouble.

This is a very small drama in a very small organization.  But I’ve been back in the US long enough to realize that there are a lot of people in my circumstances, who are trying as hard as they can to ‘make it’, at least according to the standards of our society, and who are constantly teetering on the edge.  Because we are not numbered among the unemployed, because we are not among those lining up for government help, because we are not among those grateful for a shelter or for a soup kitchen, our society seems to think that we are all ok.  But the very fact that we exist, that we are working hard to contribute, are trying to support our families or meet our obligations, the very fact that we are trying so hard and not making it is a symptom that should tell anyone with any sense that something fundamental is not right with our system.  This is the economy that ‘trickle down’ Reaganomics and its subsequent avatars has produced.  And it has worked very well for a few of us, and not so well for the vast majority of us who may not have access to millions of dollars to invest in stocks or companies or real estate.

Best practice might be saving our organization a few thousand dollars every month, according to their own business models.  But it is costing them some of their best employees, the very people who make this organization what it says it wants to be.  I know it seems like a hard choice from a business standpoint – money or people?  Do we try to maximize profits for the sake of a few  at the expense of the workers who generate the services or products that make those profits possible?  Is it not possible to find some median place, where we make a modest amount of money and we take care of the people who make the organization work?

But what do I know?  I don’t sit in the boardroom, nor is my desk in the director’s office.  I do know what it is like to spend a lot of hours of my life every week working at a front desk, trying to make people feel welcome and happy, processing their applications, solving their problems and answering their questions.  I do know what it is like to do all of this while making a cut above minimum wage.  And I do know what it is like to be subject to the whims of management who seem to feel more obligated to manage their money well than to demonstrate any sense of obligation to their people.  Having experienced this personally now, I am in a position to say that this isn’t working so well, at least for us people.