ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T TALK TO ME!

I was very happy about the fact that one particular story didn’t get resurrected at our recent family reunion since it involved me. According to the story, I was upset over something and was outside grumping. A neighbour walked by and said something to me, at which I am supposed to have responded, “Don’t talk to me cause to be I’s mad.” I am pretty sure the whole story was made up, likely by some family member looking to divert attention from themselves.

I had—and still have to some extent—a problem with anger. Things and people would set me off and I would react. I had a variety of responses, depending on the level of anger and the context. Sometimes, the anger would lead to depression and self-isolation. Sometimes, my anger would lead me to break things, including my own treasures. At other times, my anger would express itself in caustic and deliberately hurtful comments. And there were times when my anger would cause me to respond physically.

Part of my growth process as a person and as a Christian was learning how to deal with my anger in healthy and positive ways. I won’t make any extravagant claims about how I have completely conquered my anger. It is still a reality and I still need to keep an eye on it and every now and then, it manages to break through the barriers and cause me and others problems. I have learned to understand my anger and have developed ways to deal with it that are consistent with my faith, mostly.

But I am always aware of the potential—which perhaps explains why I am so aware of the level of anger I see around me. We seem to have developed a very angry culture here in North America. No news report is complete without an interview with someone who is passionately angry about whatever the report is about. Anger shows up in the form of road rage, gang violence, social movements, protests.

It seems like no one can express an opinion or idea without someone getting angry and expressing that anger. If I think school buses should be yellow, someone is most likely going to angrily express the opinion that I am wrong, while at the same time expressing opinions on my intelligence and heredity. As we argue further, we will probably begin to hurl threats and maybe even engage in some form of violence.

It seems that we have allowed our culture to legitimize unhealthy anger. We don’t process anger—we express it. We don’t try to understand and deal with our anger—we broadcast it. We don’t grow through our anger—we seek to cause pain and hurt. This epidemic of anger has created a cultural context where everyone is somewhat paranoid and we are all on edge, wondering who is going to start shooting where.

I am very aware that anger is a legitimate, normal and even valuable emotional response. We were created with the ability and need to be angry. But it seems that we struggle with figuring out what to do with this emotion. At times, we have tried to force people to repress their anger, an approach that was and is extremely unhealthy. Repressed anger is extremely unhealthy for individuals and society—I am pretty sure that much of the depression that I struggle with is a result of repressed anger.

But at the same time, unrestrained anger is just as unhealthy to individuals and society. The kind of anger that I see so much of these days, the anger that is always present and which shows itself with little or no provocation is not helpful.

In the end, when anger expresses itself in violence that causes people to be hurt and killed, it doesn’t much matter if the actions are the result of long repressed anger or open, burning anger—the damage is the same. The ever increasing anger level in our culture is a serious problem, one that we don’t seem to really know how to handle.

Anger is a part of our emotional response to the world. It is a basic part of the makeup of humanity, a part that God gave us and which he had a purpose for. But if we don’t learn how to deal with our anger, well, the results are visible on every newscast.

May the peace of God be with you.

I HURT!

Because I am a pastor who is also a news junkie, I am exposed to a lot of pain. Some of it is up close and personal, as I work with the victim of some unspeakable abuse or spend time with a family grieving an unexpected and unfair death. Some of it is less close and less personal, as I watch news reports of someone who had enough and expressed their pain and hurt in very public ways or hear the interviews with the survivors of such an event. Occasionally, my own pain becomes a factor in the process, as I deal with the limits imposed by aging and so on.

So I spend a lot of time around pain. And as might be expected, I have been thinking about what I am seeing—and what I am seeing both saddens and inspires me. The part that saddens me is what has been on my mind today.

When people hurt, it seems that a large number of us want other people to hurt as well. Sometimes, we show that by calling for severe punishment on those who caused the hurt. It is not uncommon for the family of a murder victim to sum up their calls for punishment by saying something like, “Our loved one will never be with us again—why should the murderer be allowed to live?” While I can understand the thinking, it does seem to suggest that at least some people think that if they hurt, others must hurt as well.

Sometimes, when the press covers some mass shooting, they tell the story of an individual who was bullied, marginalized and deeply hurt by others. Some of these people respond by harming themselves—but these days, many are prompted to grab a gun or a knife or a car and inflict pain on others. While I have a great deal of empathy for the victims of bullying and social hurt, it appears to me that some of the victims at least operate on the principle that if I hurt, others must hurt as well.

As a pastor and a pastoral counsellor, I am very much aware of the fact that when pain and hurt are shared, they are much easier to bear—but what I am seeing so much of is not this healthy, therapeutic and healing sharing. What I am seeing too much of is the desire to make others hurt. It is almost as if our society has decided that the only way I can deal with my hurt and pain is to make sure that others hurt as well. If those others are somehow responsible for my pain, that is great but in the end, it seems that when we hurt, we just want others to hurt as well. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot why they hurt, it just matters that they hurt because we hurt.

Objectively, this is a pretty dumb idea. I really can’t relieve my pain by making someone else feel pain. At the very best, causing pain to others provides a temporary distraction from the reality of my pain—and when the distraction wears out, I still have my pain to deal with. Making others hurt neither decreases nor shares my pain, it just increases the overall level of pain in the world and creates more people who want to make others hurt in a vicious cycle that never ends.

Whether we call it justice or revenge, causing pain for others isn’t a way of dealing with my pain. Certainly, there is a need for justice—but justice isn’t pain relief. Revenge—well, revenge merely distracts with golden promises and delivers only more pain. I simply can’t deal with my pain and hurt by causing others to experience pain and hurt. It just doesn’t work—in fact, it has the opposite effect overall.

The pain and hurt I feel are inside me—and the reality is that dealing with that pain and hurt is an internal process. I have to deal with me. It is my pain. I am suffering. I hurt. And I need to discover how to deal with that pain within me. It can be done—but trying to deal with my pain by making others hurt is a lose-lose solution.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T MESS WITH THE BIBLE

When I was about seven or eight, my mother began a short-lived practise of reading the Bible with all of us kids at bedtime. We would sit together and read the KJV—those of us who could read would get a turn and the rest would squirm and listen. The custom didn’t last long—there were too many of us kids and not enough time in the day and a million other things that got in the way. But I have actually been reading the Bible pretty much continually since that point. Sometimes, my reading has been hit or miss; sometimes it has been forced; occasionally, it has been in aid of learning a new language—but there have been very few stretches of my life when I haven’t been reading the Bible.

I also have a deep desire to understand what I am reading so I do a lot of study, discovering the meaning, contextualizing, looking at the original languages (sort of), reading commentaries. My appreciation for the Bible and its wisdom is an essential part of my spiritual development. I read it, I study it, I teach it and most of all, I try to understand and practise it.

And so I find myself getting angry and upset with people who trivialize the Bible and its value. I don’t get really upset with people who want to deny the Bible or turn it into a collection of fairy tales—I tend to be more concerned with the underlying reasons for their ideas, the emotional, cultural and experiential things that lead them to deny the truth and value of the Bible.

No, what really ticks me off are the people who claim faith and who seek to use the Bible as a club or weapon to defend their particular view points. My latest frustration was a politician who attempted to use an out of context Bible verse to defend his very controversial political stand. The fact that I think his stand is wrong and unbiblical itself doesn’t bother me as much as his casual and opportunistic treatment of the Bible.

We who are part of the Christian faith have a tendency to approach the Bible from a very wrong perspective. We are often guilty of looking to the Bible for some sort of divine backing and support for what we want to do or believe or advocate. We begin with who and what we are and want and then comb the pages of the Bible to find God’s words of support for our position. Armed with this divine backing, we can club our opponents into submission because God is one our side. Unfortunately, the other side probably had another verse that they have discovered that they use as a shield against our club.

Along the way, we seriously mistreat and disrespect the Bible. We take passages out of context; we interpret the truth out of them; we bend and break applications; we massage and tweak words; we ignore the inconvenient places that disagree with us; we even lie about what it says. It seems that as long as we can find some words somewhere that can somehow be forced to say what we want it to say to support what we want, we are fine.

I am pretty sure that isn’t what God had in mind when he gave us the Bible. The Bible’s beginning position is that we are separated from God because we are imperfect and sinful. The words and ideas and themes and teachings of the Bible are there to help us overcome this sinfulness and its consequent separation from God. The Bible exists as a mirror to show us our failure to be what God planned us to be and at the same time, to provide us with a way to get to where we are what God planned is to be. (Hint—we get there by trusting God, not ourselves).

Reading the Bible as anything but God’s revelation to us to help us become what God knows we can be and actually wants us to be is to risk distorting and even destroying the value and purpose of the Bible. God didn’t give us the Bible to defend our narrow, bigoted, partisan, selfish and sinful ideas—he gave it to get us out of that rut and into his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO IS LAUGHING?

Social media is a major force in our world. In general, I am not a great user of it, though. I know that there are some real possibilities for the church in social media and if I were at a different stage in my ministry, I might be more interested. But truthfully, beyond this blog, I don’t have a very large social media presence.

I am, however, a consumer of social media to some extent. There are a few blogs that I read regularly and many others that I check now and then. And, I have to confess to a growing addiction to YouTube, an addiction that began during the difficult time a few years ago when I was between jobs and somewhat depressed about being between jobs. It isn’t a debilitating addiction—I haven’t missed work because of it and don’t skimp on sermon preparation to watch but it has become a part of my life.

I have learned some things from YouTube—my attempt to put ceramic tile on a wall succeeded because of a YouTube video, with a little help from a TV home improvement program as well. But mostly, I watch because I find the videos funny or because they deal with stuff I am interested in. But I am also troubled by what I see, not because the videos reveal anything I didn’t know but because of something I do know but which seems heightened by the availability of social media.

We human beings are cruel and nasty and self-centered. And thanks to social media, we get to share our cruelty and nastiness and self-centeredness with the whole world, or at least that part of the world who chooses to go online. It may be just the videos that I choose to watch but it seems to me that a high proportion of social media videos involve people being put down or tricked or harmed—but since it is supposed to be a joke, they are not supposed to be upset.

What bothers me even more, I think, is the fact the people want to share the evidence of this cruelty, nastiness and self-centeredness so openly. It seems like we want attention so much that we will do anything to get it—and if that anything involves something that is less than flattering about someone else, no problem. Even worse, the victims of many of the cruel, nasty and self-centered stuff seem as happy to get the attention as the perpetrator.

I am probably showing my age and am probably sounding like a grumpy old man but I am troubled by the attitudes and actions I sometimes see. When attention comes at the cost of the dignity and value of an individual, it is really worth it? Is getting the social media spotlight on me worth degrading myself or others? As troubling as it seems to me, the answer appears to be yes for many people—getting views justifies whatever.

And truthfully, we can’t actually blame social media. People have always been willing to use others to get attention for themselves. The stories of what we did or said to so and so have always been told—over campfires, over coffee, over a beer, over a tea, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the church foyer. All social media has done is give us access to a larger audience, giving us more attention and making our cruelty, nastiness and self-centeredness evident to many more people. What might have gone no further than the kitchen table now circles the world endlessly.

I am not going to stop social media—truthfully, I am not even going to stop watching YouTube. I doubt very much if I can reform human nature enough to keep the cruel, nasty and self-centered out of social media. As human beings we are loving, caring and considerate—and we are also cruel, nasty and self-centered. All of us are a blend of both. But in the end, the more we feed and encourage the dark side of our natures, the worse it is for us, others and the world in general because “… those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.” (Job 4.8 NIV)

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW FAR?

I am a pastor, a person called by God to help others find and understand the love of God.  I teach, I preach, I counsel and go to a lot of meetings, some of which actually have a point.  And in the course of  all that activity, I encounter a lot of people–even as the pastor of small congregations in a rural area, I encounter a lot of people.

Some of these people are church people, people who are kind and loving and accepting and could be referred to as the “salt of the earth”.  Others, well, others are somewhat less likable–and a few are incredibly easy to dislike.  Some are comfortable to be around; some are okay for a while; a few I prefer to avoid if I can and there are a few who create a bit of fear in me when I encounter them.

But I am a pastor and part of my job is a commitment to serving God through serving people.  But every now and then, I have to deal with the issue of just how far I am supposed to go in dealing with people.  Sometimes, the problem comes in the way the person treats me–while it isn’t common, I have come across people who insult me, want to dominate me or who threaten me in some way shape of form.  More often, the problem comes about when I realize that the person I am encountering has been guilty of some particular behaviour.

For example, because of my work with victims of childhood sexual abuse, I tend to seriously dislike people who sexually abuse children.  I am sure that God loves them–but I generally find it difficult to be around them, let alone minister to them.  My response comes from years and years of listening to the pain and hurt and struggles of people trying to re-create a life seriously damaged by abuse.  When I am around such people, I tend to be angry and judgemental.

There are other people who react to other things.  On a somewhat regular basis, I talk to people in the church who wonder if it is possible for us to do something about so and so, who says/does/did/ might do that thing that really upsets them.  At least once, I had a church member suggest that it might be better if I didn’t make a pastoral visit to a family because, well, “they” were “like that”.

How far does tolerance, acceptance and Christian love go?  When do people cross the line that separates being included in God’s command to love from the legitimate withholding of that love?  I know, I know–the Gospel message is for all people, no matter who they are and what they have done.  Jesus came to rescue all people, including whichever group I happen to be having problems with at any given time.

But does God expect the same limitlessness love from me?  Do I have to minister to the child abuser?  Do I have to welcome “those” people into the church I pastor?  Do I have to defend them from the sanctified abuse the church sometimes likes to dish out to those who break the rules?

What does God expect of me?  Well, he does expect me to push my limits.  He does expect me to follow him into the places and to the people I would prefer to ignore or condemn.  He does call me to challenge my positions and bring them into congruence with his positions.

That is painful, difficult, frustrating, scary.  It also produces serious anger.  But in the end, it is part of my commitment to the faith.  I wish I could conclude this blog by saying that I have overcome all the limits and love everyone as God loves them and calls me to love them.  But I am trying to be as honest as possible in this writing and so the best I can say is that God’s grace is at work and he is patiently working with me.  I know that because there are a couple of people I know who have abused children whom I see on a semi-regular basis.  God is working in me and helping me learn how my faith needs to help shape loving response to them.  It isn’t easy–but it is coming.

I am glad that God’s love is not limited by my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEARCHING FOR PERFECTION

One of the constant realities of my work as a pastor is the connections I have made with victims of childhood abuse.  As I have worked with people who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their early years, I have become deeply aware of how painful and traumatic such abuse is.  It can and does affect an individual for the rest of their lives.  It affects the ability to form healthy relationships; it affects the ability to develop healthy self-esteem; it may even affect the ability to live a long life.

Any kind of abuse at any age is wrong and evil.  And for that reason, I am hopeful about the developing trend for abuse victims to feel able to report their abuse and name names.  As long as abusers of any kind can do their evil without fear of the consequences, abuse will flourish.  Fear of being named may not change an abuser’s basic drives but it might prevent at least some of them some from abusing some people some of the time–and while that may not seem like a great victory, it is a victory for the potential victim who doesn’t get abused.

So, my hope and prayer is that our culture continues this recent trend to empower victims of all kinds of abuse to speak out.  Evil flourishes when it is hidden in the dark–shining light in the dark corners of life is a positive and powerful force that benefits everyone.   Taking away the power that fear and concealment provide to abusers and giving it to those who need protection from abuse is an essential part of changing our world.

But I have to say that I do find one part of the developing process interesting, at least from a theological point of view.  While there are some people whose outing as abusers surprises no one, there are other situations where everyone is surprised that so and so could ever do something like that.

For a variety of reasons, we assume that certain people would never do anything bad.  They are such nice people or they play such nice people in the media or that have such a great job or wonderful family or they have lots of money or are so smart.  We assume that because they are X they could never do evil–another application of the halo effect (see my post for Nov. 24/17).

And because we assume some people are incapable of such terrible things, we have one of two reactions.  Sometimes, we simply deny the reports–they accuser has to have made them up for some evil reason of their own.  But mostly, we believe the report and end up disappointed and become even more cynical–if we can’t trust so and so, who can we trust?

Theologically, we shouldn’t actually be surprised.  We can be disappointed and hurt and upset–but not surprised.  The Christian faith–and most other faiths, for that matter–is very clear on the fact that there are no perfect people.  As Paul puts it in  Romans 3.23, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (NIV).  All of humanity shares this fatal reality:  the best of us harbour dark and evil sides and the worst of us harbour light and good sides.

And that means that all of us are guilty of something.  Dig deep enough into someone’s life and you will find the darkness and the evil.  This is a reality well known to politicians seeking to ruin an opponent, investigative reporters looking for a big story and theologians seeking to understand the world.  We all have a dark and evil side and we all will either act on that darkness or fight it for our whole lives.

When people act out their dark and evil side, it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It can be wrong; it can be criminal; it can be devastating; it will have consequences and it must be dealt with appropriately–but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is a reality of the human condition, a reality that God recognizes and seeks to deal with through the live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.