Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Forgiveness

I love Lent. I love the deep silences and the lack of easy answers. This may be part of my also loving any music in a minor key. It quiets my busy mind and me.

But the practice of Lent annoys me, with people telling me on social media what they are giving up. There is no good reason for my dislike. I feel a tad less virtuous at every post reminding me that I might be a bad Christian, and I find it petty and aggravating when people post how much they miss chocolate or coffee during Lent. 40 days is nothing, honey. I know there are people in the world who will never have either. I used to give up something for Lent. I even briefly toyed with taking on a spiritual discipline. But I’m just not good at it. For the past several years, I have decided that I might just not even bother, since I’m only going to slip and then kick myself for over it.

We (the publishing company where I work) published a Lenten study on forgiveness. I studiously avoided reading it for many months, even though I know and respect the author. I avoided it because forgiveness feels like a giant guilt trip. This is probably because I’m horrible at forgiveness. I can’t even forgive myself.

I hold grudges. I’m not proud of it, even if I am very good at it. I consider it an embarrassing talent. If someone throws me under the bus, or is rude or abusive, I remember. I remember a tall-steeple pastor who was dismissive towards me during a strategy session pertaining to the committee I served on at the 2001 General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate (and the big vote went my way, just FYI. Yes, I know that was 13 years ago.). I remember a pastor who, for the life of him, couldn’t remember the name of one of my friends that he had met at least six times over ten years. I remember men who mansplain and white people who whitesplain the world to me. I remember famous people who were at one point known to be anti-civil rights, anti-gay, or anti-Semitic (side-eye at Henry Ford and Strom Thurmond). I remember which companies profited off of death camp labor or helped systemize genocide during the Third Reich (full-on disapproving stare at IBM and Siemens).

I am a grudge champion.

On those rare occasions when it occurs to me I’m supposed to be Christ-like, I give a second or a third chance. I only do this because once, growing up, my mother sent me and my brother to school with the assignment to come back with one good thing to share about the people we liked the least. Ever since then, I have the most annoying habit of looking for something good in everyone.

I know I‘m not a particularly Christian kind of Christian, so out of obligation to continuing self-improvement, I finally cracked open the Forgiveness book. I read this in the “Honesty” chapter:
We get ourselves in trouble when we begin measuring the relative “weight” of human sins. To whatever extent other people’s sins seem obviously greater than our own, we may let ourselves more easily off the hook.

I thought, “Damn it, Marjorie Thompson!” and immediately felt guilty, because she is the nicest person in the world. Also, my mom knows her.

I attended seminary in the age where boundaries and self-care were drummed into our heads. Take care of ourselves and whatever emotional issues come up and our bodies and our spiritual lives, and don’t date parishioners, don’t sleep with colleagues when you’re both married to other people, don’t sexually abuse children or anyone else, and don’t steal. I took it to heart. I was trained by the FaithTrustInstitute to provide the training at McCormick Theological Seminary and to the Presbytery of Chicago. I helped create a module on boundaries in social media.

My current forgiveness problem is this: almost ten years after graduating from seminary and my ordination, I know colleagues from my generation (who presumably experienced the same training I did) who date parishioners, sleep with colleagues who are married to other people, and are pedophiles. And I’m not talking about knowing just one person. I’m talking multiple people. For all the paranoia about gay and lesbian people getting ordained to church leadership, these people (the ones I know of) have all been heterosexual. 100%. Give it a few more years and I’ll know about colleagues who steal from their churches.

All sins are equal, right? I can’t measure the weight of these sins. But I do. I think many of us do.

I struggle with understanding how it is I should be forgiving people who do the opposite of what we were taught, whose actions and needs tear a giant hole in the fabric of community. These are people whose actions, in the case of sexual abuse in particular, have ruined the lives of other human beings. I do not want pedophiles in church, ever. I would not want the church I attend to call a pastor who has serially dated parishioners. In an effort to find further justification for my own resistance, I kept reading.

In the chapter on “Forgiving” I read this: “Serious offenses against the humanity of a person involving physical or psychological trauma cannot be forgiven quickly.” Oh, thank God, I thought to myself. I think about having to forgive the people who betray a sacred trust. I think about forgiving someone who violated the humanity of another being. And I think, “Nope. I’m not capable of forgiveness. God can take care of it.”

But the earlier statement, and a subsequent discussion in the book on restorative justice (focused on restoring an offender to his or her community) stuck with me. I talked about this blog post with friends and colleagues for weeks. This Lent, I mulled over forgiveness, even in the midst of complaining about petty things, feeling rage at dehumanizing policies, calling legislators, and feeling lots of retributive things.

My problem is I expect Christian community to be a little different. Christian community nurtures children, cares for old people, holds us when we grieve, rejoices with us, is open to questions, provides space to grow, and protects the sacredness of our beings. That Christian community includes prize-winning grudge-holders, domestic violence perpetrators, money launderers, cheap labor exploiters, unnecessary drama creators, racists, sexists, and homophobes really problematizes my expectations. We are all so human, no matter how petty or illegal our sins may be.

This Lent, I am coming to terms with holding in tension the different space that Christian community provides, while also being composed of sinful humans. The Christian community isn’t always safe, has never been safe. What grieves me is that Christian community is also a place where we welcome those who judge women for their reproductive choices, are racist toward people of color, openly practice violence against gay and lesbian and intersex people, and abuse children. I hate this last part most of all.

I have a childhood memory of my mother walking around ranting about cheap grace. No such thing, right? Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Reconciliation isn’t easy. Christian community isn’t pure or free of sin or even that good at the hard work of forgiveness.

Sometimes we have to turn ourselves inside out to find and handle our resistance. Sometimes we will never reach reconciliation. Sometimes we have to learn how to accept grace and then practice it. Sometimes some of us (maybe especially me) will have to open a book about forgiveness, and let ourselves be disturbed at the implications. Sometimes some of us (especially me) will have to discover what it is to be a Christian all over again.

A note: Some readers have very helpfully pointed out that I neglected to clarify the context. Please know the following: As a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have built-in systems of accountability and discipline that mean pedophiles and other abusers are removed from ministry and contact with young people, people who betray others are removed from ministry for a period of time pending therapy/treatment/real repentance, people who steal are removed from ministry, among other consequences. The system isn't perfect, but it does sometimes work. My struggle with forgiveness is not about a lack of consequences, or allowing people who betray us to wander around unchecked. My struggle is about what happens in me while the other processes are ongoing or have been completed.

Forgiveness: A Lenten Study
By Marjorie J. Thompson

Friday, April 4, 2014

How to Travel Like a Christian. Third Edition: Flying.

You can catch previous editions here.

First Edition: Caveats and Privilege

Second Edition: Respecting People, Also Known As God's Creation

This is a post about space.

If you have been on a plane in the past five years, you know space is a premium. The smaller spaces available as airlines cram more seats into each plane require us to be a bit more, shall we say, self-aware.

I have a few #protips to suggest.

A caveat: Of course, I understand not everyone is my size. Some people literally take up more space. That’s cool. I think God made us in all sizes. But that doesn’t mean some of us get to monopolize all the space.

Tips for flying:

Put your smaller item under the seat in front of you, unless your height makes it really uncomfortable. Nothing throws me into a rage faster than a man (it’s always a man) who is 5’7” with no discernible disability who puts his slim briefcase FLAT in the overhead bin space. Or the man (it is often a man) who puts his coat into the overhead bin immediately after the flight attendant asks everyone to hold on to her or his jackets until all the bags are up. I’M WATCHING YOU, AND I’M VERY DISPLEASED, SIR.

I know that when you board first, it is so tempting to take all that bin space. I, too, want to get the heck out of the airport to my destination. If you are flying directly to your final destination, or you are otherwise headed home, consider checking your bag. Since you, the frequent flyer, could probably check a bag for free because of your frequent flyer status, help out the people who would have had to pay to check their bags. Leave a little space.

Be nice to the people traveling with kids and older people. Don’t rush them. Offer to help. Not only does this make you a kind person, it also shows you have some empathy. Remember back when you were an infrequent flyer? Or when you were traveling with small humans? Or when you had an injury that made mobility more of a challenge?

You of all people should know not to grab the headrest of the seat in front of you when you stand up out of your seat. You can actually use your own seat! Yes, reach behind you.

Do not recline when at all possible. Have you ever been in the middle of doing a spreadsheet on your laptop when the person in front of you suddenly reclined, and your laptop got trapped between the seat back and the tray table? Also, if you are sitting in front of someone who is taller or bigger, you just took away that much more space. On longer flights, consider reclining slowly and partially.

On Southwest flights, when you see the poor suckers who checked in as Group C, and can't find seats together, and it is a parent and child or a couple, especially an older couple that maybe isn't English speaking, for crying out loud, offer to move so they can sit together. For all you know, they don't have internet at home. Or they don't travel enough to know the game.

You can learn to share the armrest. Yes, I have engaged in a silent armrest battle, but in all fairness, the last time it was with someone my size (small) who was shoving her elbow way over the armrest and into my side. Here is the deal. Taller people and wider people simply do need a little more space, and we all know that in the effort to squeeze more revenue out of the biz, airlines are trying to fit more and more seats into the same space they have always had. So if you are bigger, be aware of how much of the armrest you take. If you are smaller like me, try to let the bigger folks next to you have some space. You know, elbow forward so neighbor can use the back section. Those of us who are on the aisle or the window already get at least one armrest. Folks in the middle should have more access to armrests than those in the window or aisle seats.

Close your d*$& legs. This is about men and space. Why do you spread your legs wider than the seat width? Because you were improperly socialized to believe subconsciously that you get to take up more space than others simply due to your Y chromosome. Thanks for oppressing the rest of us all over again. I mean, you already run the world. Try not to be that jerk and control your wingspan, ok?

Do not talk loudly about how offering health care or other basic human rights to people is terrible policy, all while sporting Brooks Brothers button-downs and a SkyMiles Platinum bag tag. You fear class warfare? Because you are asking for it. You look like an entitled jerk with all the access to resources in the world, who could care less about those who weren't born on third base. (You might be otherwise compassionate and generous, but it’s sort of hard to tell, particularly since you aren’t offering any alternatives. I bet you have never had to pay out of pocket for your sister's health insurance because she couldn't afford it because she was caring for your aging father. I bet you never needed help getting a square meal once in your life. Don't be so obvious about your ignorance of what it means to be NOT YOU.)

And please don’t do this. I received this photo from fellow road warrior Jessica Vazquez Torres. 

This post is about space. The space in an airplane is not ample. As a frequent flyer, I understand the urge other frequent flyers have. It is the urge of a colonizer. When you board first or second, you think, “I was here first, so that’s great. I can put both my items in the bins because they’re empty. I can take up the space I want.” First of all, would-be colonizers, ponder this: it looks like you’re there first because you just can’t see all the other people who will be there in about five minutes. Second, just because it looks to you like there is lots of space doesn’t mean all that space is yours. Other people also paid for tickets. Other people are boarding behind you. Think of the other people.

I have been well-socialized as a woman of color to limit how much space I take up. I am always aware of the space around me. This is not always good, because sometimes I take up too little space. I try to make myself invisible, which is a source of great aggravation to some who think I need to speak up more. But most of us, especially those of us with some measure of privilege, take up more than our fair share of space, and too many of us don’t see why it’s a problem.

The space in the world, or in a conversation, or a plane, is limited. I know I shouldn’t think that life is a zero-sum game, but frankly, a plane has real limitations.

Taking up more space than we should is theologically problematic. You see, when we take up tons of space, sometimes we crowd others out. On a plane, it means someone else has to go hunting for a spot to put a bag. In life, it means we have claimed our own importance without acknowledging that all of us are created good, holy, and wonderful. Everyone deserves to be heard. We drown out the voices of others, losing out on collective wisdom, or discernment of the Spirit. We dehumanize others without thinking twice.

You might think I take this space thing on a plane a bit too far, but I think how we interact with the limited space on a plane says something about how we treat the limited space in the world. I was thinking of this when visiting California during pre-drought conditions. A county away from my hotel, everyone was on water restrictions. Because I knew that, it made me more aware of how long I let the water run. California is surrounded by water. But California, a major food producer for this country, has to manage its water, and jockey for water that travels through other states. Just because water came out of my tap didn’t mean I needed to use as much as I could.

All the space or the water or the energy or the food or the power isn’t ours. We share it with billions of other people. We are also shaping a legacy to leave the generations that follow us. And perhaps, connected as we are through sacraments, creeds, and tradition to Christians of every time and place, we might consider what it means to be gracious with the space we take up and the resources we use.


Water: Precious Gift and Endangered Resource
Downloadable Adult Study by Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.

What’s in Your Water Bottle?
Downloadable Youth Study by Martha Bettis-Gee

Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis
By Patricia K. Tull