Reflecting on the day of Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I came across this quote that someone had put up.
‘Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.’
My confession is that “I don’t cope so well with ‘foes’.” I remember growing up being called ‘too sensitive, and being teased in the family about being a ‘sensitive weed’. But there was always some kind of dis-connect, in that even by 6 years of age I had learned to project a confident exterior, that hid an anxious interior. So there is the pattern that shapes the rest of my life. Being in conflict, even knowing that there are ‘foes’ creates an internal strife, self questioning and so on.
Each time that I have begin a new ministry, I have remembered the advice given to us as young clergy. “Start with the relationships first, and then the task will come later.’ I have tried this, but it is worked sometimes, but not others. For the Church, the ‘task’ will not go away. In order to be a faithful priest, I have to keep presenting ‘the task’ of discovering new ways of presenting the gospel to those in our sphere of influence. It is no use playing lovely music, making everyone feel happy, while the Titanic is sinking.
But at the same time, there are those who are either not up to the task, or who are heavily invested in other forms of Church who are opposed to ‘the task’ as I see it. Hence clerical life ends up being, by definition a life of conflict, a life lived among ‘foes’, some of whom will be of one’s own household.
In my relationships with friends and lovers, and now being married, I have always valued the finding that safe space, where allowing the ‘vulnerable’ me to be expressed is an ongoing possibility. Not having that, makes life lonely, or simply political.
As a clergyman I have always wanted to work with members of the congregation at the level where this value of mine could also be shared. It allows for much more flexibility of working, it allows for much more mutual submission in love. And here, this is what I have found in many places. I particularly think of some times in our Gospel Reflection Groups when I and other members have been able to ‘bring into the circle’ their vulnerability, without being ‘advised’ too much, but being supported.
Given my history, that is my goal and first approach, and I am disappointed, hurt and often angry when it is not possible, because the offer of mutual vulnerability is turned down.
This aim does not help me deal with the ‘foes’ though. I remember a story told by a psychiatrist. He had a client who was an author. The psychiatrist said ‘You know, being an author requires great sensitivity. But dealing with agents and other people requires a very thick skin. My job is to help you to have a strong enough sense of self that you are able to deal with the rejection slips, dal with the tough publishing world, while keeping your sensitivity for the writing’.
Well over the years I guess that has happened to me too, but I have to tell the truth: I am looking forward to the day when this difference between my inner self, and the self I am required to be to deal with the ‘sturm und drang’ of life can be lessened.
I guess, against Bonhoeffer’s advice, I am looking forward to a little more ‘cloister’ in life, and a little less ‘living amid the midst of foes’. I wish I had his confidence, that would allow me to really accept that there are ‘foes’.
My question though, is “What is the best way to deal with ‘foes’. The hymn says “Yet cheerful he, to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might save.’ This too is the theme of Romans Ch. 5. Where St. Paul says “God shows such love toward us in that while we were yet enemies of god, Christ died for us.’ Are foes to be opposed or allowed to have their way?
Some of the answer lies in the way that the Church has distributed its authority. I have a bishop and an Archdeacon who by legislation can require certain things of me. I willingly comply, because they have the authority to do what they do by legislation. It is a great blessing to me that both my Bishop and Archdeacon are people to whom I can be obedient because of their authority, and yet vulnerable as a person, because of how they are also vulnerable with me. I think I have most trouble when I, as a person who has been called and trained to help people connect to God, experience distrust for that role.
So the inner conflict does not go away, but its degree lessens somewhat.
I took great comfort though, this week from the response of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the discovery that his real father was not Mr. Welby. He said “It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” How about that. Who I am, even though I do have a history that shapes my strengths and weaknesses, is determined not by that past, but by my relationship with Christ, in the Spirit.
Lately, I have taken to praying a lot to Holy Spirit, asking the Spirit to be the ‘me’ that responds, or asking the Spirit to transform me, even when I am not able to do it myself.
Interestingly enough, it is within the process of ‘weeping with loathing’ over my own short comings, or struggling ‘in the midst of foes’ that these commitments to prayer, and inviting in of the Spirit develop.
This process, shares something with both Bonhoeffer and my namesake, the Apostle Paul, who had to work pout his theology on the run. What we get is not so much a thought out system, but a series of responses, that have a consistent thread behind them. This reflection about wanting room to be sensitive, yet at the same time living within the ‘sturm un drang’ of congregational life is one expression of that kind of irritant, that sometimes turns out pearls..
Bonhoeffer also said something about his own inner life, and what it feels like to know the same kinds of inner conflicts that I experience. His poem ‘Who Am I’ has it. He, with me and Archbishop Justin Welby and St. Paul cry out.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!