Monday, March 29, 2010
" I shoulda rode in on a donkey."
If I'd only known. I feel like a real ass. "I shoulda rode in a donkey," I told a friend. "You what?!" she replied. "To have had any credibility at all, to come across as a big whompin' deal, to look strong and worthy, I should have come into the church on Palm Sunday morning riding on a donkey. "That's what a predessor did, rode in on a donkey, basking in all the adoration of Palm Sunday, children waving palm branches, laying down their robes to make a smooth way for the ass to move through the aisles and up to the front of the church." A donkey. The pastor, the pastor of the church rode a donkey into church on Palm Sunday. The phrase Messiah Complex comes to mind. I believe the words she used were "boundless narcissism." The crowd loved it. They ate up his messianic theatrics and powerful, charismatic personality week after week. Unfortunately, they also covered up the multiple transgressions that ruined a vast multitude of lives from before that day to this day. Christian people are called to follow Jesus. To imitate him. But not in triumphal glory. Rather, Christian people are to follow Jesus in service, humility, love, and even in sacrifice. Putting their needs, their desires in submmission for the good of others, the community. Not for personal gain or self-aggrandizement. The first time I related this story to an outsider, she almost fell off her chair, laughing. Except we agreed, it isn't so funny after all. Pretty pathetic. On all accounts. I was sitting in the church's library going through old photo albums with long-time members when we got to the donkey photos. I burst out laughing, thinking it was a joke. But no, it wasn't, and these stalwarts were rapturous in their remembering, filled with longing for those good old days. Of abuse. (Eer, never mind.) I had no idea about this incident when I agreed to become pastor of this particular church. I had no idea about a lot of the boundarylessness of the congregation, its incestuousness with former clergy, the emotional affairs, as well as regular explicit sexual contact. Would I have agreed to the job, had I known this, and also known a lot more of the background than the bishop or anybody else dared to tell me, Not without certain very explicit conditions. Including the unconditional support of the bishop's office. Oh well. We know now how that went. A community of people earnestly seeking their messiah, even if it's an imitation, a fake, a deeply troubled soul who wants to serve himself more than God, is a dangerous community. They will fall over at the first feet that come down the pike. And, after his disatrous fall, they will seek another and another and another, another messiah. Clearly, such a community is also one in great pain, confusion, carrying and probably hiding older and deeper wounds that only a Superman can fix. A community desperately seeking such a messiah of their own is a vulnerable community and one that deserves appropriate, informed lovingkindness. Which was why I was sent there. With conditions agreed to, common perspectives understood amongst the regional church's leaders (my support team, in theory), promises made. And we know how well that turned out, now, too. Following a false prophet -- even if the words are kosher, the behavior belies them -- creates chaos that continues unto the fourth and fifth generations. It's one thing to have a healthy self-image, to reflect the glory of God. But this pastor's act was one of presumption, entitlement, privilege. Unbridled narcissism. Arrogance. So. Think about this for a moment and work with me here, to catch a better glimpse of the perversion of clergy sexual abuse. The minister claims for himself the triumphal entry, -- whether or not on an actual ass, -- the power, a very real identification as God present. But riding on a donkey, for mercy's sake! The choir is singing, the pipe organ is at full volume, "All Glory, Laud, and Honor to you, Redeemer King...." The crowd joins the song. They wave the palm branches, the children are overawed and delighted, waving and shouting "Hosanna!" I know in such a case that my head would be too big to fit through the door. My messiah quotient would be off the charts, my grandiosity would be boundless. The minister's act was sheer arrogance. When Jesus said, "Follow me," he didn't have this in mind. Jesus didn't invite us up on the donkey, at least not in this triumphalist way. Okay, so we have the minister all dressed up, a palm wreath, robes, sandals, flowers, waving palms heralding his entrance. Young children, I've discovered, get mixed up between Jesus and the pastor him/herself. "Are you God?" It happens. Even to women, it happened to me! So, yes, in this instance, in the Palm Sunday spectacle, we'd have to say that we've got a minister pretty much setting himself up to be (almost, virtually, like) Jesus. Now, imagine this minister seeks to be inappropriate with you, sexually, or in any other way. And you have this visage of him, up on the donkay, the "Hosanna's" ringing, "Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord." And you are at a vulnerable point in your life. Confused, lonely, rejected by another lover. What do you say? How do you respond to his winsome, powerful charisma? Sadly, thousands of women every year are seduced by their pastors. Thinking it is the answer to their prayers, a special liaison with God. No, only a selfish offer from a predatory pastor, and their only real liaison is with his narcissism, his "user" personality. Hence, the work I did for seven years at the ELCA churchwide offices: seeking to stem the tide of clergy sexual abuse all across the country, to assist bishops and other church leaders as they resisted the temptation to fop these guys off on some other unsuspecting parish, to stop offering easy access for perpetrators to those upon whom they could prey. Hence my work with others of the ELCA in supporting bishops who needed to deal out the appropriate discipline (NOT, read excommunication or ostracism) but appropriate discipline to those clergy who misused their power, who abused it and their parishioners. (Work that fell on arrogant, frightened and deaf ears in some regions.) Hence the work of empowering congregational members to recognize and resist boundary violations attempted by their clergy, and the work of interpreting this behavior to vulnerable women (and children) who might think that having the pastor's "special" attention is a positive, not a disastrous thing. And hence the work of helping clergy and potential clergy understand the stakes for their parishioners whenever they became sexually, emotionally or otherwise inappropriately intimate with them. And, hence the complex reactions in a congregation like the one I served for three years, where abuse occurred at a such a scale for such a long period of time, a length of time that boggles the mind. And no such perspectives were provided, no healing offered, no transparency regarding this tragic history. I think Pope Benedict has an inkling whereof I speak. I hope. I hope. And other bishops too. In the aftermath of donkey rides on Palm Sunday and the violations that occur in the shadow of night, congregation members experience, such as a bishop or elder or superintendent, helps them to understand what has happened, their pounding impulse is to sweep things under the rug. To prevent anything or anyone from even attempting to agitate the waters. And in an instance like the one I encountered, to stop at nothing to prevent the shameful secret from coming out, to be so driven by fear they lose all reason and lash out in ways that I'm sure they would be embarrassed by in other circumstances. It wasn't them, their best selves, who attacked me. It was the scared, hurt, angry selves who were flying blind and mean. I actually don't feel bittnerness or anger toward them, the parishioners on the front lines, so much as at the regional leaders who could have helped them, helped us all, to move through a tumultuous time. As far as I'm concerned, the parishioners were set up, turned lose like a mob and told, "You will do what you will do." Such is the tragedy of the parish I served. Their woundedness. Their pain. I grieve for them as for myself. Their suffering has gone on longer and continues, for the most part, without benefit of understanding, of perspective. They did a horrible thing to me. But it was because a horrible thing was done to them. This is the grief, the sin that continues unto the fifth and sixth generations. My heart weeps for them this day, "If only you knew the things that make for peace." Healing peace is not easy. Not formulaic. (Note to professionals who intervene: Family systems theory doesn't work here, not as a template to impose. It's way more convoluted than that!) It requires hard work and slogging through swamps and across exposed deserts. But it is worth it! As we enter another Holy Week, within the Christian tradition, my real hope for those who are still stuck in the aftermath of clergy sexual abuse is that the promise of rising to new life will embolden you, inspire you to take a step, just one, then rest, then another, rest again, and then another, and find pilgrims to join you as you move into the healing, dynamic resurrection power of God. Jesus bet yes. He went all in to say yes. I trust that. And, finally, just to be clear, if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus, you do not belong in a parade on the back of an ass. You belong on your kness, scrubbing. And just leave the donkey out of it altogether. Okay