Sunday, March 22, 2015
Today I am grateful for spiritual leaders. I deliberately did not use the terms priest, pastor or others because I believe that there are many who walk among us who are spiritual leaders, but haven’t got the actual title. I believe in a higher being no matter what he/she is called. God works for me. Others might have a different name for the same entity. I see many good people of very different faiths. . .or no discernible faith. . . and I refuse to believe they are doomed just because they don’t believe as I do.
I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran. My church was caddy-corner through the block from a catholic church. In our teen years we were told to stay away from them and not go to their dances because we might want to sin with boys. I already wanted to sin with boys and I didn’t care if they were Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian. Sounded like fun to me. In Sheboygan, Wisconsin you don’t have to do much more than turn your head to the left or right to see a church or a tavern. That’s the beauty of the place. The sinners did not have to go far for salvation.
I remember a huge scandal that befell my childhood church. The organist, a beautiful copper-haired woman who looked like a cross between a young Agnes Moorhead and Maureen O’Hara, supposedly had an affair with the pastor. Wow! Tongues wagged. Barbs were thrown. Shunning of witch-hunt proportions ensued. She divorced her odd husband and left my church. I don’t know if the pastor was reprimanded or if the whole business was swept under the rug. It might have all been rumor. For all I know they just connected as strong friends and gossipy busy-bodies with their own sinning guilty consciences couldn’t keep their suspicions to themselves. My memory fades.
At the time, as a probably ten-year-old kid, I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I liked the organist. She had strong hands and when she was practicing she would let me stand at the edge of the organ and watch her feet maneuver the rows of pedals and her fingers fly over three keyboards, reaching to pull knob-stops every so often. She was awesome. I also liked the pastor. When I had my piano lesson in the church basement, he would sing “The Lost Chord” over my shoulder, in his broad baritone. I was a lousy piano player, but still have that piece of music and think of him every time I play it.
I don’t know what happened to her. I’d like to think that she had a happy life full of forgiveness and free from guilt and shame. The pastor died on the pulpit. Literally. While my family was seated in the first or second row. . .our usual spot. While reaching up to make a point, he gasped and crumbled to the ground. He landed in a heap of vestments and dangling crosses, on the side steps leading to the pulpit. Congregational gasps rang out like a powerful chord. People rushed. Calls were made. An ambulance arrived. A stretcher hauled him out. But it was clearly too late. Snap! Dead! Just like that. I thought of the organist. Who would tell her? If she cared about him she would want to know.
I have not been a member of a church for many years, yet I feel more spiritually directed than I ever have in my life. I wondered why for a long time? Now I realize that it’s because I am so connected to my core values, with empathy, kindness and compassion forming the base. I struggled with who I was, what I was made of, for many years. Now I know. I’m forever putting myself in someone else’s shoes, looking at both sides of any given situation, trying to imagine what they are feeling, often to the point of irritating me. It takes a lot of energy to be fair. The rapist and the victim; the families of the murderer or murdered; the cheater and the wronged; the abuser and the abused; the molester and the innocent child; the violent and the peaceful. They all need me. Need us.
When I grew up I was taught that all sins are equal and forgiveness is always possible. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. How can swiping a pack of gum be the same as shooting a bunch of children in a school? It just doesn’t compute in my brain. And I was taught that if you “think” a sin (covet) you might as well have done it. I “think” sins all the time. So am I doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t always control our thoughts, just my actions. Probably spiritual leaders struggle with this one, too. I don’t know and I don’t pretend to know. I’ll leave that one to someone way smarter than me to figure out.
So often we expect our spiritual leaders to be above reproach in all ways . . .ways we could not manage ourselves. We hold them to a higher standard. It must be pretty lonely up there on the pedestal where we put them. But they are only human, too. They struggle with temptations, just like my childhood pastor and the organist did. They might make mistakes. They might say the wrong thing. They might be insensitive when they should be cautious. Mental illness laced with insecurity finds them just like it does us. They suffer from the same foot-in-mouth disease that we all suffer from occasionally, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But their mistakes are transparent and judged by their congregations. Sometimes they are asked to leave, with shame and despair covering them like a shroud. Sometimes their dismissal is valid. Sometimes it’s not. But they go anyway. Their calling has been tainted with tragedy and doubt.
When I hear of things like this happening in houses of worship, I can’t help wonder where the forgiveness is? Where is. . .“there but for the grace of God go I?” Where is the empathy? I cannot name a religion where kindness, compassion and charity are not front-runners. But even religion can’t take the mean-spirit out of some people. It is in their core. They probably will never find. . . “the peace that surpasses all understanding.” I am grateful for the ones who have, including the spiritual leaders among us, whether they are affiliated with a church or not.