When I was ordained about 27 minutes or so, I would go to clergy conferences, look around at those gathered, and wonder, "How can they let themselves go?" From those who were overweight and couldn't walk from the pulpit to the altar without breathing hard to those who were viscerally angry about the church and never missed an opportunity to share their venom to those who were suspected alcoholics, I thought to myself, "I'll never do that."
Oh the precious judgmentalism that comes from inexperience and unawareness.
The past three weeks have been made of the stuff that leads to overweight clergy with suspected drinking problems. Pastoral situations that are layers of tragedy over sadness with no quick resolution. The massive grief over (and triggered by) the death of Robin Williams. Mental illness strikes again, and perhaps this time we will, as a society pay attention and respond to mental illnesses with the compassion and activism we demonstrate for physical illnesses like cancer and ALS, but I'm not holding my breath. The outrage - quite justified, I think - over the tragic shooting of a young African-American man by a white police officer in Ferguson. Again, perhaps this time we as a society will pay attention to the racism, classism, and sexism that has poisoned the very soil of this land since our origins and have the courage to respond, but I'm not holding my breath. And then, after I'd hoped the turmoil of the days would take a deep breath, the church where I serve was vandalized.
So as I stood in my trashed office talking to the police, all before morning coffee, I couldn't decide whether to scream in anger or cry. Neither response was appropriate at that moment. Both would be expressed later that day. The physical damage was not as serious as it could have been. A window smashed, a door kicked in, some other material things broken. One member noted, "Well, nothing valuable was damaged."
But yes, yes something very valuable was damaged. The material items damaged were limited and will be easily replaced by insurance. But there is a deeper, much more valuable and much harder to replace damage done when sacred trust, hope, and space is violated. What was damaged was the same thing damaged when we experience deep betrayals by people we trust. What was damaged is the same thing damaged when we dismiss mental illness as a "character flaw" and refuse - still - to offer insurance benefits for mental illnesses in the same way and without the lasting judgment companies offer benefits for physical illnesses. Those who experience discrimination, violence, and degradation because of race, gender, level of income, ethnicity, or sexual orientation feel that damage deep in our bones.
Our sense of safety, our sense of sacred, our sense of justice and dignity, and our sense of self is damaged with these violations. Insurance cannot write a check to replace this damage. We have in the church attempted to address this damage in some way through dialogues and awareness training. I'm not convinced it is a success, but perhaps it's something.
In our quest to do something, and usually something that doesn't feel costly on a personal level, we want to stitch up the gaping wound of damage to dignity with a few clean stitches and move on. A few in-service training classes. A few dialogues. Maybe some sharing, and then we should be over the damage done to our dignity.
My experience is that we must be willing to sit with the damage to dignity, the deep wounds, and feel them. My faith believes that God can and does transform this damage. We take our racial privilege or gender privilege or wealth privilege or whatever privilege we have that allows us to stand above the glass and steel of betrayal that damages souls and name it. We admit that this privilege has caused wounds to the dignity of others. And we feel the wounds to our selves and souls that damage to our dignity has inflicted.
Then we listen. To others. To ourselves. And for the love of all that is holy, we quit acting like discrimination and violence and degradation have not damaged the dignity of the souls of the children of God. We believe them. We believe their experiences and their stories. We admit the wrong we did.
Then, after prayer and transformation and healing, however that healing may look, we act in love. We are called to act in transformation and healing. So no, we don't get to hope someone else will help justice roll down like waters and we don't get to sit on the sidelines to see if righteousness will move forward like an ever-flowing stream. The details of exactly how this works are a bit muddy, but that's my sense of God's transforming damage instead of humanity's continuing to transmit it. For me, key in this is that those who have not admitted the deep wounds within themselves cannot offer healing.
My office is mostly cleaned from the vandalism. But the damage will remain for some time. I don't have an easy solution to fix all that is damaged in my life, in the church or community, and certainly not in the country or the world. Maybe our desire for easy, painless solutions that can be contained within the pages of a self-help book or a day-long seminar lead to self-medicating the damage to our dignity with food, alcohol, or whatever numbs the pain we don't want to feel. Or maybe we just become overwhelmed by it all and lose faith.
Then we see some almost overlooked moment of hope and remember that love does win, the tomb is empty, and life bursts forth.
Oh, the precious awareness that comes from experiencing damage and the mysterious, hard journey transformation and healing that can follow.