Scandal

I’ve been saddened by recent accounts of sexual abuse in prestigious college sports programs. The comment has been made that people who gravitate to youth and to the physicality of sports might provide an environment where pedophiles fit in.  The comment has also been made that raging hormones and a fascination with sexual experience make boys and young men especially vulnerable targets.  Both lead one to wonder how isolated or pervasive the predatory activity is.  I imagine university presidents and trustees all over the country are asking themselves the same thing.

Regardless of how pervasive the problem is in college sports, I hope the news coverage brings people who have survived sexual abuse out of isolation. Perhaps the most insidious and lasting effect of child sexual abuse is the persistent shame saddled on its victims.  There is a kind of circular thinking in which the fact that the crime happened is interpreted as proof that it must have been deserved.  It takes the separation of many years to detangle that twisted perspective. It takes courage to confront both the lies and the hard underlying truth. It takes real maturity to overcome shame.  It is no wonder whatsoever that survivors come forward years or decades later.  I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who do so in their own time.

I also hope hidden perpetrators get caught.  The combination of survivors realizing they are not alone and nervous university presidents and trustees may heighten the exposure.  No one should be above the law, but it goes without saying that many—sports figures are joined here by politicians, clergy, and even police—have demonstrated a differing view.  The story of human pride and downfall is as old as history itself.  Icarus perished flying too close to the sun, and Pharaoh was the bible’s biggest loser.  It may be naive to hope high profile sexual abusers stop feeling entitled.  University financial self-interest (if not moral decency), however, is a reasonable place for hope.  I hope universities proactively search out and excise offenders (and those who protect them) in a way the Catholic hierarchy never did.

The twin keys to crime are motive and opportunity.  Universities can clamp down on opportunities if they choose to do so.  Motive is trickier.  Whatever sexually attracts adults to prepubescent and post-pubescent teenagers can be treated behaviorally (CBT) and chemically (“chemical castration”), but treatment efficacy is unclear and the human cost of recidivism is unacceptably high.  Child victims of abuse are more likely to be arrested for violent crime, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to abuse other children.  It is for these three reasons—perpetrator recidivism, long term consequences on victims, and the long healing cycle—that statutes of limitations don’t fit this crime.  That’s just my opinion.

I imagine the sad revelations are heartbreaking to none more than to those high integrity individuals who have dedicated their careers to mentoring and guiding youth. Some people and institutions alike are driven by a mission to equip young people to be the best they can be.  It is unfortunate in the extreme that some in leadership positions, when confronted with alarming accusations, have blundered into choosing sides—disparaging the accuser in order to defend the accused.  The higher road is simply to defend the mission.

Join the conversation. What can you do to equip youth to lead us to a better future?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Advertisements

A Holy Spark

The last post pondered what it is to be redeemed from wrong choices and healed from heartbreak, suggesting it is like finding a reality that was there all along but somehow hidden from view. How do we come into this new way of seeing? How do we seek out what we can’t even see?

There was a time when I focused intently on this question. I filled sleepless nights trying to visualize what my life would look like on the other side of being saved. I thought hard about what, exactly, it means to be redeemed. It sounds silly, but I dissected Mirriam-Webster’s definition. The breadth of the definition surprised me, but I could identify every single meaning of “redeem” as something that in one way or another I fervently desired.

1a : to buy back : REPURCHASE b : to get or win back
2: to free from what distresses or harms: as
  a : to free from captivity by payment of ransom
  b : to extricate from or help to overcome something detrimental
  c : to release from blame or DEBT : CLEAR
  d : to free from the consequences of sin
3: to change for the better : REFORM
4: REPAIR, RESTORE
5a : to free from a lein by payment of an amount secured thereby
  b (1): to remove the obligation of by payment
     (2): to exchange for something of value
  c : to make good : FULFILL
6a : to atone for : EXPIATE
  b (1) : to offset the bad effect of
     (2) : to make worthwhile : RETRIEVE

The returning to God is not merely going back to our original proper course as if we had never veered off.  It’s greater than that. God wins us back, extricates us, pays our ransom, and conquers heartbreak in an act of unceasing unconditional love. I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to erase from history, as if they never happened. That desire is not authentic, though. God doesn’t revise history. He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good. He makes them worthwhile.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner asserts that we should not condemn the wrongdoing, but rather embrace it for what it is.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

Kushner poetically concludes that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and reconcile ourselves to ourselves and to God.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Made in the image of God, that holy spark was always there, even in the meanest, most spiteful and damaging acts. Our journey brings us to healing when we finally can see that holy spark in ourselves and in those who hurt us most.

Join the conversation. Has surrendering to God’s relentless quest for you brought you into a new way of seeing?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Victory over Heartbreak

In many ways, being redeemed and healed is like finding a reality that was there all along but somehow hidden from view.  Jesus used a similar analogy.  The three parables in Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son—speak specifically to the joy of returning, and not just inner joy, but rejoicing worthy of celebration in community.  When the shepherd “comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”  Similarly, when the woman has found the lost coin, “she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” And the father hastily arranges an elaborate celebration, as “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”  The exegesis is offered in the text:  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)  

I used to wonder why Christians perceive more joy over a sinner returning than one who does right.  Staying on the straight and narrow is no mean feat, after all.  Doing right has its own reward, and likewise doing wrong has its own punishment, but scripture is telling us it is more than that.  I think the reason has to do with heartbreak.  We could use a metaphor of a sailing ship returning with all her crew from a routine voyage versus returning from a voyage after all were feared lost at sea.  Certainly loved ones would happily welcome the expected return of any voyage.  Imagine the heartbreak and grief instead if the ship failed to return and all were thought dead.  And then, imagine the ship limping into harbor with all souls accounted for.  The rejoicing would be greater because the returning conquers heartbreak.

There is heartbreak and grief when we veer off course into wrongdoing.  We inflict that heartbreak on ourselves, on others and on God.  Upon returning, the heartbreak is not just repaired.  The joy of returning exceeds the heartbreak, overcoming it with grace.  It is like the resurrection of Jesus conquering his death with grace profoundly greater than if he has simply stayed alive.  Returning to God is a victory over heartbreak. 

During this week of Thanksgiving, we can give thanks to a God who uses all the crumbs of our failure for some good and who never stops seeking us, even in–especially in–our meanest and lowest moments.

Join the conversation.  Has the aftermath of your heartbreak ever risen to a greater good than if it had never happened?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com

One’s Victim as One’s Hope

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asserts many Christians tragically misinterpret Acts 4:12 “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” by taking it out of its specific context. Appreciating Jesus’ Jewish point of view helps us understand Williams’ point.  In this case, Jesus was addressing the people of Jerusalem following his crucifixion and resurrection.

The context is Pilot found no fault with Jesus.  He tried to get Herod to indict him, but Herod declined and sent Jesus back to Pilot.  Pilot was desperately looking for any excuse to spare Jesus so as not to have Jesus’ blood on his hands.  Pilot would have been all too glad for the crowd to have advocated for Jesus’ release.  The crowd could have tipped the balance of Jesus’ fate to justice, but instead they yelled, “Crucify him!”  The audience addressed in Acts 4:12 is not all of humanity.  Williams points out, “It is not a neutral audience, and it is not an innocent audience.”

Similarly, Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” is addressed specifically to his closest friends the night before they betray him.  In Judaism, atoning for our sins leads to the door of our victim—in this case, Jesus. Hence, from Jesus’ Jewish point of view, his statement to his disciples in the upper room can be understood to mean their only way to atonement with God is teshuvah through him.

Williams describes a double reversal, wherein Jesus returns to judge the people of Jerusalem who condemned him, and more startling, the prospect of being judged by the victim Jesus is perceived not as a threat but rather a promise of hope.  Williams goes on to describe the early resurrection preaching as, “an invitation to recognize one’s victims as one’s hope.”

We are not all dealt the same cards in life.  Some people get a really sorry hand, and there is nothing fair about it.  A young woman recently reminded me of this.  She grew up in a house full of abuse, and she received a ration of it at the hands of both her father and his brother.  She spent significant portions of her childhood in foster care and a residential psychiatric facility.  At 15, she birthed a baby boy.  By the time he was 6 weeks old, she was back in a psychiatric facility, unable to care for him.  She survived numerous suicide attempts and finally escaped her childhood when she married the same kind of man her father was.  She subsequently had four more children, and the horror continued into adulthood.

She desperately wanted to give her children a different childhood than she had, to break the cycle, but she didn’t.  The hardest thing for her to survive has been losing parental rights for her children.  What hurts most is sheer grief for the loss.  She had no vision for her life as an adult alone.  She thought it would be impossible to stay alive, but her life persists day by day nonetheless.  She hopes someday her children will look for her, and she imagines they will want to find a person, a healthy and whole person rather than a death certificate stamped suicide.  Her victims are her hope.

Join the conversation.  What power do you have to redeem the one who hurt you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Hanging by a Thread

My favorite thing about Jewish teaching on teshuvah, and truly, in many ways my favorite thing about Judaism, is its embrace of human nature—not the way we should be, but the way we really are.

Teshuvah is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance that, along with prayer and tzedakah, is necessary to receive God’s forgiveness.  It is a process for turning away from our old ways, turning to God, turning to relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self–the self one was created to become.  The process of teshuvah includes feelings of remorse for our wrongs, intellectual assent to what is right and intent to change–all of which are interior and lack a clear external benchmark.  The external benchmark that matters for teshuvah is simply to stop wrongdoing. Doing so undoubtedly requires those interior changes, and indeed teshuvah requires them also, but completing teshuvah rests on action.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuvah.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal reads like a “how to complete teshuvah” guide.  He veers off course, he realizes his wrongs, he regrets them, he confesses and offers amends to his father and he stops his riotous living.  But why?  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a whole new way? Or did he return because he was hungry?  In the Jewish tradition, it doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

For some, a complete conversion of interior motives might seem dauntingly out of reach.  Judaism does not require inner transformation in the process of repentance and forgiveness.  Rather, it recognizes lesser modes of rapprochement as fully adequate.  A
penitent who continues to struggle with the same patterns that led him to sin prior to teshuvah, yet nonetheless manages to desist from sin, even if barely hanging on by a thread, is assured of forgiveness despite his continuing inner struggle.

In time, perhaps the inner transformation will come along also.  Rather than approaching the steps in teshuvah in a particular order, some approach them as a spiral.  Each step is visited and revisited as the penitent’s teshuvah deepens.  As a person makes amends, he comes into a more complete recognition of his offense.  As his remorse deepens, he desists from wrongdoing with greater earnestness and his confession becomes more genuinely humble.

Join the conversation.  When have you had to “fake it ‘til you make it?”  How did it work?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at
http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making Amends

Of all the steps in teshuvah, I am especially interested in restitution, or making amends.  The Jewish and Twelve Step traditions recognize great power in this step, but Christians place little emphasis on it as a step towards healing or reconciliation with God.  What are we missing?

When we realize we have done something that hurt another person, it is natural to seek that person’s forgiveness as well as God’s.  In our house, we try to avoid the word “sorry” in apologies.  There are just too many ways it can go wrong.  There’s the pre-teen, sullen, single-word sentence uttered with downcast eyes that really means, “If I say nothing, maybe they’ll get bored and leave me alone.”  There’s the teenage, “Dad!  I said I was sorry, ok?” screamed defiantly and followed by a door slam that shouts, “No remorse here!”  Then there’s the one I personally despise, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” that actually means, “I’m good.  This is your problem.”   All of them remind me of the country western song, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I know how sorry you are.”

I encourage family members not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent.  It’s just better to ask for time to think about it.  When some remorse can be found, the script goes, “I realize how wrong I was.  Will you forgive me?”  Thanks go to my godfather who supplied the script.  We tend to do better with that.

Restitution is more than an apology, though.  The idea of restitution is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged or to do it symbolically if we can’t do it directly.  “I’m sorry I broke your lamp when I was drunk,” is an apology.  Replacing or repairing the lamp amends the offense.  If someone gets drunk, drives, and kills somebody in a traffic accident, he can’t go back and “un-kill” the person who died.  Becoming an organ donor is a symbolic amend that can give life back to someone in the future.  If I was careless with someone’s feelings, maybe donating to a cause the person cares about is a symbolic way of restoring care.

Of course, this is all hypothetical for me.  I have been practicing confession in the Episcopal tradition regularly for years, and I have never approached restitution as a part of the process.  Realizing the prominent role it plays in other traditions brought a real blind spot in my personal practice to light.  I take absolution to heart, burning my confession notes and not looking back.  Believe me, when I set about writing a book about confession, I would have loved to have had 10 years of notes to refresh my memory.  I can’t honestly regret burning them, though.  It’s wonderful to feel free.  Here’s the thing, though.  While I don’t feel burdened by my past, I do feel disconnected from it.

Making amends not only mends bridges in broken relationships.  Perhaps more significantly, it also mends bridges to a broken past.  Instead of regretting or recoiling from the past, restitution builds on it, allowing us to raise something good out of the ashes of something bad.  I suspect I’d have a very different feeling about my past if I had had the fortitude and courage to have made amends.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever fled the past instead of building on it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.

A Time for Re-thinking

We are approaching Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.  You would never guess it by the red cups at Starbucks and commercial hubbub proclaiming the holiday shopping season, but Advent is traditionally a penitential season.  It is a time for reflecting on the past year and deciding what course corrections we need, not unlike Elul in the Jewish tradition.

The Jewish tradition offers a framework for pursuing this re-thinking of past choices, and the Hebrew name for it is teshuvah.  Literally it means “turning back” to God.  Participants in my Reconciliation Workshop for Episcopalians rank the teshuvah discussion highest.  Many Christians wondering how to repent find teshuvah to be a useful framework.  Although highly individual, teshuvah nominally consists of five elements.

Recognition:  Recognizing sin as sin requires intellectual assent to a moral compass, or awareness of right and wrong.  Awareness is key.  Someone who grew up in a house full of gossip may not immediately recognize the sinfulness of the evil tongue.  When undertaken seriously, introspection involves not only recognizing wrongdoing but also delving into the motives that drive patterns of action.

Remorse:  Once we see the moral failure in our thoughts and actions, after we have cast aside blame and have assumed full responsibility for our own acts, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we hope to be.  Actions count more than feelings in the Jewish tradition, so it is significant that this feeling finds such a prominent place in this process.  Remorse is important because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of transformation, and God plants it.

Restitution:  An apology expresses regret whereas restitution restores justice.  Restitution may be as simple as an earnest apology.  If a pattern of destruction caused repeated or serious harm, restitution may require concerted effort and expense.  Leviticus 6:5 established restitution as the amount of damages plus 20%.  In Luke 19:8, notorious Jericho tax collector Zacchaeus turns to Jesus and declares, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”  His declaration would have impressed hearers in his day as extraordinary restitution.

Resisting Wrongdoing:  The single action that can do the most to mend fractured relationships is to stop causing harm.  Sometimes this step is delineated as two separate steps, with resolving never to commit the offense in the future as a separate step, much as the Twelve Steps delineate readiness for Gods help to change as a separate step from asking for God’s help to change.  Although all the elements of teshuvah are required, desisting from wrongdoing is regarded as the most difficult and most important.

Confession:  There are many rabbinic traditions for confession.  Some recognize inserting one’s personal confession of sins into the liturgy at the proper moments in the community ritual.  Others encourage a private confession to God in prayer in addition to ritual confession.  Some insist on speaking the confession aloud, as our thoughts crystalize when articulated verbally, and words take on weight or their own when spoken.  Christians also recognize several traditions for confession, including confession in community before communion and individual private confession spoken aloud to another person. Many traditions recognize profound healing power in confession.

Join the conversation.  When do you make time for re-thinking the year gone by?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.