Truth to Power

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In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

Walls: Inside and Out

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There are popovers in the oven right now. Because somehow the smell of rolls baking is comforting and, to be honest, a hot popover drowned in butter and a hot cup of tea are probably as close as I’ll get to communion today. Yesterday was a tough day. Last night was a long series of disjointed dreams and I woke up just as exhausted as I was when I went to bed. My prayer on opening my eyes this morning was, “You know what God, I am not in the mood the deal with you today.”

Despite that, I drove to the beach as I do every morning to spend an hour or more with God, although it was more out of habit than desire this morning. The remnants of Harvey had waves crashing over the seawall and the air was full of salt spray and misty rain. My boots happened to be in the car and a walk in the storm seemed more fitting than the idea of going to church because being surrounded by love and joy and music and people was way more than I could handle.

It has been something of a theme of 2017 that life is too short, too precious, and too fragile to be wasted on fakery of any sort. We always think we have time and the fact is, we never have as much as we think. Part of my foul mood this morning was that I resented feeling like I needed to get up, be presentable enough and pleasant enough to show up in church to be around people who don’t even really know me. That they don’t know me because I intentionally haven’t put down roots anywhere is a post for another day, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t up to the shallow pleasantries this morning and God knew that.

God knows this black mood of mine quite well. It happens that sometimes that life gets to be more than I can handle and I pretend like I’m completely fine when I’m really not. And that goes really well until I suddenly find myself feeling about as social and lovable as a pissed off hedgehog with a bad attitude. But every time I sink into this toxic sludge of a space, God meets me there. Today was no different. I walked until I ran out of beach, which given the tides and the storm waves, wasn’t much of a walk. But standing with my face in the wind and the waves crashing at my feet, I felt the power and grace of the Creator who is so much bigger than the storm that was raging inside. That was enough to drive the darkness back to tolerable levels of gray.

So as it turns out, it’s not that I don’t feel up to dealing with God today. I didn’t feel up to dealing with church this morning. And that distinction is one I need to get better at making. God was the only one who was going to understand the tangled mess of emotions I was feeling today because even I don’t know what I’m feeling. God knew that too. Maybe what I needed today was outside the church walls because what I needed, more than anything else, was to meet God inside my own walls, in the spaces where no one else is allowed.

A Woman Like Me

butterflyToday’s gospel is one that I have hated for years. I realize how horrible it sounds to say that about sacred scripture but, God knows, it’s the honest truth.

Most people hear Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ask them what this gospel passage is about and they’ll tell you Jesus saved her daughter from the demon. Yay! Go Jesus! Or they’ll tell you about the faith of the mother. Yay! Go Mom! Be persistent in your faith!

They don’t hear, or they deeply discount, the lines prior to it in which Jesus compares a woman, desperate for His help, to a dog. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for that. The two leading favorites are that He was trying to show those who with Him their own prejudices and/or that He was testing the mother’s faith.

A woman like me has learned the hard way that a man who will call you a dog, humiliate you in front of his friends, and essentially make you beg for what you need is not a man who loves you, nor is he to be trusted.

A woman like me. That’s a perfectly awful term to use. Like I’m a freak of nature or an alien creature. I am a domestic abuse survivor. I was brutalized by a man who stood at the altar and swore to love, honor and protect me. And then did the exact opposite.

The textbooks will tell you that repeated trauma rewires the brain, causing victims to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. In plain English, a woman like me sees and hears everyday things differently and I do it all the time because my brain is on constant alert for threats to my safety. I’m keenly aware of the distance, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, and any and all movements of those around me. So, yeah, when Jesus starts sounding like my ex-husband, I have a problem with it. A big, big problem with it. Trusting a guy who calls a woman a dog is the exact opposite of what my brain wants to do. Because I’ve been down that road and it gets damn ugly. But…

But long, long before I got married, I was schooled in the twin arts of sarcasm and gallows humor. One of the important lessons I learned early on is that not everyone will get the joke. As the saying goes, in that huge overlap between the things I find funny and the things that should not be joked about lie the reasons I’m going to hell. But there are those people with whom I have a good relationship, with whom that I know the banter back and forth is not insulting or harmful and with whom I can be pretty sarcastic. No harm. No foul.

My favorite client routinely answers the question ‘How are you?’ with a deadpan ‘Meh, I’m still this side of the grass, if that’s what you want to know.’ It goes without saying that we both know I really want to know if he’s doing okay and we both know he’s not seriously implying that I’m just checking to see that he’s not dead yet. There is an assumed level of safe relationship there.

What if the back and forth between Jesus and the Canaanite mother wasn’t as harsh as I hear it? What if there was an assumed level of safe relationship there also? Perhaps, instead of hearing this in abusive tones, I can learn to hear it in the sarcastic tones of safe relationship, one where both sides understand what goes without saying.

For a woman like me, that is a tough, but necessary, leap of faith. Because if I keep hearing this in abusive tones, I’m stuck trying to balance a Jesus I can’t trust with the Jesus I do and that will never, ever balance.

 

 

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.

Milestones & Waterworks

Milestones & Waterworks

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Brothers walking to graduation – their last school event together

I always knew the day would come when my sons would step out into the world on their own. Everything I’ve done in life, I’ve done with their best interests at heart. These last few weeks, as my older son prepared for his high school graduation, I have frequently found myself a hopeless puddle of tears. In the space of six weeks, I watched him get his learner’s permit, buy and register a car, replace both taillight assemblies on said car, present a starter motor project with his team at the career showcase night at his school, win an award for most outstanding student in his career path, win a scholarship from a local repair shop to help him pursue his education as a mechanic, and finally graduate from high school. My role has been to step off to the side and cheer. And cry. A lot.

At first, I couldn’t understand why it hit me so hard. I mean we’ve been working toward this since he was just a little guy waving to me out the window of the preschool. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. There were struggles behind closed doors that no one else got to see. But I saw and I know how hard he worked. Every time I look at him at lately, I realize how proud I am of this incredible young man.

And then it hit me that in some ways, I guess I’m proud of me too. That’s not an easy thing for me to admit. I second-guess myself all the time and I have to be reminded to cut myself a break. I’ve made some damn hard choices, especially the last ten years, and I rarely stop to take in what I’ve done. I’ve been slogging along, just trying to keep going and now suddenly, here I was sitting in the bleachers on warm early summer night with tears streaming down my face as both of my boys processed on to the field, one as an usher and the other to graduate. Long about the time I would get myself under control, something else would set me off. The choir singing Bridge Over Troubled Water brought on full-fledged sobs. My father loved that song and used to sing it to my mother when he was the hospital dying of cancer. I was so wishing he was there with me to watch his grandson graduate, knowing how proud he would be. That graduation fell just days before Father’s Day was only adding to the waterworks.

My younger son has his own ideas about what his next three years of high school will entail. And my own college graduation is sneaking up on me. We’re all moving into a new chapter in life. Maybe this emotional mess I find myself in lately is all a part of that process. But I wish I could find the water shut-off. Or afford stock in Kleenex.

grad 1

Separation Anxiety

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After a semester that involved a lot of theological and philosophical reading, I finally had three weeks to read anything I wanted before diving into my summer classes: Catholic Intellectual Tradition I & II . So naturally a novel about a suicidal theologian who spends three days on Patmos with the Apostle John would be high on my list of fun reads. Because, of course, my idea of a light and fluffy summer book involves a sarcastic Saint John picking apart every theologian from Polycarp, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian to Luther, Calvin, Barth, and MacDonald. I realized the absolute hopeless depths of my church nerdiness when I started giggling out loud about Augustine being described as leading the West to exhaustion. It all came down to the same question: union or separation? Well now, that’s a fine way to distill the last three years of my studies.

But one line especially knocked me for a loop.

“The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his.”  

– Patmos, C. Baxter Kruger

Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? That question has always irked me for reasons I couldn’t quite name. It became a foundation for my Salvation Cupcake Theory. There have always been things that never rang true for me, things I could not learn or absorb (not for lack of trying). As I read this book, all of of the sudden it clicked that every single one of those things I could not take in taught some idea of separation from God. Every one implicitly or explicitly taught that some how, some way I had to find, make, discover, earn, repair, or rebuild a way back to God. But here’s the thing – there is no way back. There is no need for a way back. God never left. Deep breath. Say that again. God. Never. Left. And I don’t have the power to leave God. Somewhere along the line, I simply closed my eyes to what was right in front of me. He was already there! And I couldn’t see it because I closed my eyes to it like a three-year old with my eyes shut tight – if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. I’m not here and neither are you.

I close my eyes when I’m scared, when I’m hurt, when I’m tired, when I’m overwhelmed, when I want to be left alone or when I don’t want anyone to see me cry. I close my eyes when I start to panic and the whole world has suddenly become too loud and too close. I close my eyes when something triggers a flashback. I close my eyes to stop and think when I know I’m about to say something I may regret. I close my eyes to protect myself and somewhere along the way, I felt a need to protect myself from a made-up version of a distant, angry-parent God that never existed and to hide a made-up version of myself that was, at best, a horrible caricature of who I really am. That has been a lot to let go of and little by little, I have been and still am letting go of it. For the last three years, as the worst of that mess has settled, I’ve found myself having the same conversation with Jesus over and over. He asks me to look with his eyes and see what he sees. And my best answer is, “Show me.” But to do that I have to open my eyes. Some days I start to wonder if I really want to see want to see what he sees. But then some days, one line on one page of a book I picked up for just for fun makes a third of my life suddenly make sense and I’m blown away by the sheer simplicity of it.

 

Book Recommendation: Patmos by C. Baxter Kruger