Monday, August 22, 2016

Suffering for the Sake of the Name

Lloyd "Jay" Butler
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ – Acts 9:10-16

Saul – who would become St. Paul the Apostle – had a vision of the Risen Lord and was struck blind.  He is waiting for Ananias to come and restore his sight.  Previously, Saul persecuted the followers of Jesus, so Ananias is none too happy to receive this particular assignment.  In fact, he is afraid.  Saul’s reputation as a brutal enforcer of Jewish orthodoxy preceded him.  But the Lord assures Ananias that the one who, in his blindness, caused so much suffering to those who invoked the Name, will himself experience much suffering for the sake of the Name. 

At first blush, this sounds like the usual tit-for-tat.  Saul did a lot of bad things to people, and now he is going to get what is coming to him!  But that is not why Saul suffers.  This isn’t a matter of retributive justice, but rather of conversion.  Saul suffers in the process of becoming Paul, someone much more and much different than he could possibly have imagined.  He suffers for the sake of the Name.

“Suffering for the sake of the Name” had a very specific reference for 1st Century Jews.  In the religion of Israel, the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple wore a crown that was engraved with the Holy Name.  Only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, where the Presence of God dwelt, and only on the Day of Atonement. 

The ritual of the Day of Atonement involved the sacrifice of two goats.  The first goat was killed and its blood, which represented the life force, was used as a substitute for the High Priest’s life.  The High Priest would take the blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it on the kapporet, the place of the presence of God, and then sprinkled the blood in the other parts of the Temple.  This ritual act symbolically renewed the world, embodying the movement of grace from heaven to the rest of creation.  In his person, the high priest represented the presence of God with the people.

When the high priest emerged from the Temple, he placed his hands on the second goat, transferring the sins of the people to it and then driving it into the desert.  The High Priest symbolically carried the sin of the people in order to remove it, so that they, too, could participate in the renewal of the world.  In the Letter to the Hebrews and in Paul’s own writings, Jesus is described as the sin-bearer who renews the world, the High Priest par excellence.  He suffers for the sake of the Name. He enters into the reality of human experience and embodies the presence of God with us, removing the barriers that prevent us from receiving this Presence.  Ananias is told that Saul/Paul, will similarly suffer for the sake of the Name. 

What is true for St. Paul is true for all those who have been baptized into the Holy Name of the Trinity, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.   We are invited to suffer: to undergo an immersion into the reality of the world, to carry the joys and sorrows of others, and to embody the presence of God for them.   In this sense, “to suffer” is not only to experience pain, but to willingly and consciously enter fully into human experience.   It is certainly not to suffer pain for the sake of pain, or as a form of punishment, but rather as an act of compassionate solidarity for the sake of healing and renewal. 

What are we willing to suffer – to undergo – for the sake of the Name, in order to be bearers of the presence of God and renew the world?

Like Ananias, we are often afraid to enter into the experience of others, especially when that experience is painful.  We resist reality, preferring to edit out the parts we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable.  The invitation to spiritual maturity is an invitation to accept reality in all its manifestations.  In this sense, conversion is a movement from a self-centered and limited ego consciousness into a wide open awareness and acceptance of all of our experience.  It is a movement from “small mind” into “big mind” that embraces suffering in the service of a larger wholeness.


I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying.  I do know that, near the end, Jay accepted death, even welcomed it.  “I’m done,” he said.  “I want out of this prison.” His body had become a prison.  Jay was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some 18 years ago.  Eventually, he lost the use of both legs and his right arm.  Swallowing food had become impossible. 

About a year before he died, the disease began to affect him cognitively as well.  Short-term memory was hit and miss.  His personality also changed.  Jay was always a gentleman, never speaking ill of anyone, kind, generous, and self-deprecating.  As his world became smaller and the disease process took its toll, Jay became angrier and more fearful. 

Fortunately, my mother is a retired nurse and was able to care for Jay at home.  In the final months of his life, Jay and Mom benefited from home hospice care as well.  I was able to spend the final month of his life with them, leaving just five days before he died.

I do not know how my step-father experienced his dying.  I do know how I experienced it.  It was painful to watch someone I loved suffer so much.  It was awful to see how Mom became a prisoner in her own home as Jay became a prisoner of his body.  I was angry and resentful that their lives had come to this place. 

What was most surprising, however, was discovering the expectations I carried about how someone is “supposed” to die.  My ideal was that dying should be a fully conscious process, entered into with courage, trust, and even curiosity.  One should be grateful for the care one receives and avoid becoming a burden as much as possible.  The closer one comes to death, the more transparent to God one should become, a window into an abyss of love.  We do not have to be afraid of death. 

I have witnessed people die this way.  The possibility is a matter of faith, and I still have hope for such an end.  In being open to Jay’s dying, I had to accept, however, that we are not in control of how we die, much less how other people die!  This is, perhaps, the ultimate experience of powerlessness.  We all must undergo dying – our own as well as those we love. 

Jay was not in control of even his response to his dying.  The disease process robbed him of that privilege.  The only thing left to him was resistance or surrender.  In the end, he chose surrender and entrusted himself to God. 

What I came to realize was that in his powerlessness and absolute vulnerability, Jay’s suffering was not meaningless.  He suffered for the sake of the Name.  He became transparent to God in spite of his disease.  It was precisely with respect to what he could not control that he surrendered to love; Mom’s love, my love, the love of friends and family, the church’s love, God’s love.  MS robbed him of everything until nothing was left but love.

Jay was so much more than his disease.  I remember the whole arc of the nearly 30 years I was privileged to know him.  He underwent so much more for the sake of the Name than just MS, and not all of it was painful by a long shot.  He experienced joy for the sake of the Name too.  What Jay taught me in his dying, however, was that we can trust what we cannot control.  We can be open to reality as it presents itself to us, moment by moment, and discover God there at work to make the whole creation new. 

How much can we suffer for the sake of the Name?  Everything.  We can be open to the full range of human experience.  Ananias could overcome his fear and resistance to God’s reconciling work.  Saul could even become Paul.  No matter how blind to reality we become, we can begin to see again.  And accept.  And heal.  And, finally, surrender to Love.

Thank you, Jay, for being my Ananias, for releasing me from a blindness I didn’t even know I had.  Thank you for this final gift, and all the others you’ve given me.   

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Do You See This Woman?

Anonymous woman anoints Jesus
I entered seminary in Chicago right from college as a somewhat naïve 22 year-old.  My first year there I lived in a dorm room that had a beautiful view of Lake Michigan.  I loved to walk along the lake at night under the stars – at least, before it got too cold to do so. 

One day at lunch I was going on about the wonderful solitude of my nightly stroll, when one of my classmates – an older woman (she must have been at least 35), looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, next time you decide to go for a walk you might consider inviting me.  Walking along the lake at night by myself is not something I could ever do.”

I felt like someone had taken a two-by-four and smacked me right between the eyes.  It was the first time anyone had every called me on my exercise of male privilege.  Until then, it had never occurred to me that enjoying the solitude of a lakeside stroll was not something many women would feel safe enough to do.   I had never thought to ask why that is the case.  I hadn’t really thought much at all about what it is like to be a woman in our culture:  a culture in which rape lurks in the background as a very real and present danger. 

Now, if I am honest, I wasn’t that naïve.  I lived in a fraternity in college.  I knew how guys talked about women.  I knew what went on at fraternity parties, the way freshmen women especially were preyed upon in the fall each year.   I’d seen some of the women, ashen faced, slipping out of the fraternity in the early morning hours trying to be invisible.  But I’d never really thought much about it.  It was just “boys being boys.” Hormones.  It was none of my business.

This all came back to me when I read the testimony of a woman, the victim in the Brock Turner sexual assault case, whose powerful court statement was published online.[1] Her courage is breathtaking.  I was outraged by her suffering, but I wasn’t surprised that Turner only received a six-month county jail sentence with probation, even though the minimum sentence is two years in prison.  A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Judge Aaron Persky opined. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”  No wonder women are not safe walking alone by Lake Michigan – or across the Stanford Campus – at night.

In the midst of ruminating on these matters, I was cut to the heart by the words of Jesus to Simon in today’s Gospel lesson, “Do you see this woman?”[2]  It felt like Jesus was speaking directly to me.  “John, do you see this woman?  Do you see her in all her concreteness and particularity, as a unique individual, as a person with her own voice and agency?  Do you see her weeping, bathing my feet with her tears, anointing them with oil, drying them with her hair and kissing them?  Do you see how much she loves me?”

Simon didn’t see this woman.  He saw a “sinner” – an abstraction, an ideological category, a neat container in which he could dispose of this woman without having to think about her too much or actually engage her as human being.  We are not even told what her sin may be.  It doesn’t matter.  Her marginal status already has been determined.  She should know her place, and so should Jesus.  She isn’t worthy of his attention.  Her suffering is none of his business.

Jesus makes her suffering his business.  He refuses to treat her as if she is invisible.  He confronts Simon about his blindness and indifference to her situation.  In pronouncing that her sins had been forgiven, Jesus affirmed that this woman is defined by her giftedness, her dignity, her great love, and not by the dominant culture’s attempts to make her invisible.  She is neither an outcast to be treated with contempt, nor a victim to be pitied.  She is a child of God, whose own faith – whose own agency – has brought her wholeness. 

Do you see this woman?

Simon was unwilling to see – to really see – this woman.  David didn’t see Bathsheba either. She was some man’s daughter and another man’s wife, property belonging to another, rather than a human being with an inviolable dignity.  Exercising his privilege, David saw, summoned, violated, and sent her back home.  He raped her and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle to cover-up his crime.[3] 

Do you see this woman, David?  She has a name: Bathsheba. She has an identity and integrity all her own, not merely a projection of your own distorted desire. So much hinges on whether or not we see women – really see them.  Seeing is believing.  Our faith is inseparable from our willingness to see each and every woman as a human being.  I would like to think that this goes without saying, but it needs to be said:  Christian faith affirms the full human equality of women. 

Sadly, the Church has often worked against our seeing women.  Many Bibles have a section heading at the beginning of 2 Samuel chapter 11 that reads, “David’s Adultery with Bathsheba,” as if she were a consenting partner, as if her rape and the subsequent murder of her husband were just a tragic love affair.  “Poor David, he is just a victim of love.  It makes us do crazy things.”  Rape is not love.  It isn’t even sex.  It is violence.

One in six of the women you know has been or will be sexually assaulted.  Given the terrible difficulties women face speaking the truth about such matters, and the ways in which the criminal justice system so often minimizes the seriousness of sexual violence, this is probably a conservative estimate.  Do you see these women: your friends, your daughters, your sisters, your nieces, your co-workers?  Is there suffering visible to you?  Are you willing to make their humanity and wholeness your business?

Vice-President Joe Biden published an open letter to the Stanford Survivor of Sexual Assault after reading her court statement.  In that letter he wrote, “We all have a responsibility to stop the scourge of violence against women once and for all.  I do not know your name – but I see your unconquerable spirit.  I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman – full of possibility. I see the shoulders on which our dreams for the future rest.  I see you.”[4]

Every woman deserves to be seen in this way.  Every one of them.  How do we change our culture, so that it is no longer a rape culture in which women are victimized and rendered invisible, dismissed and marginalized?

Joanna Schroeder offers some simple but profound suggestions with respect to how we raise our children.[5]   To begin, we need to stop excusing bad behavior by saying that “boys will be boys.”  It sends the message to boys that the normal rules don’t apply to them and that they are unable to control their impulses.  Boys are perfectly capable of respecting other people’s bodies, property and space.  So are men and, guys, it is our responsibility to hold each other accountable.

We also need to teach kids early on that consent matters.  Too often, with the best of intentions, we force kids to hug or kiss friends and relatives even when they don’t want to.  This sends the potentially dangerous message that consent can be overridden or that it doesn’t really matter.  We can offer options to kids so that when, for example, it comes to saying “good-bye,” a high five or waving good-bye will do if a hug or kiss doesn’t feel right to them.  This isn’t coddling – it is respecting boundaries.

Let’s also make it clear that using violence is always a choice and it is never deserved.   In conflict situations, ask children to tell the whole story of what happened from the beginning in order to assess responsibility rather than asking, “What did you do to make him hit you?”  Otherwise, we send the message that victims deserve what they get and are responsible for their suffering. 

On a related note, we need to avoid justifying negative behavior like teasing or hitting by saying “He only does that because he likes you.”  This sends the message that one person’s desire for attention is more important than the feelings and safety of another person.  That is the very definition of rape culture.

Finally, no one deserves rape, asks for it, or had it coming.  There is nothing anybody can do that forces another person to rape them, including being intoxicated or attractive.  Children will pick-up on our judgments when we shame and blame women for the sexual violence they suffer. 

It is telling that today’s Gospel lesson concludes by naming some of the women who accompanied Jesus on his mission:  Mary, Joanna, and Susanna.  Christian tradition has not accorded them the honor they deserve, but it is clear from Luke’s text that they were instrumental to the success of Jesus’ ministry.  Their identity was not defined by their relationships with men, but by their relationship with God.  Let me repeat that:  a woman’s identity is not defined by her relationship with men, but with God.  As people of faith, the most important thing we can do to change the rape culture is to demonstrate to our children, by word and deed, that every woman is created in the image of God.