The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own… https://rightingamerica.net/rape-sexual-harassment-and-more-the-cedarville-stories-are-multiplying/?fbclid=IwAR3w4PvmDPtu5fcnddvHU_EtiR1P534Vdd3PsOu0NVUvx5ZfJlSsFNt5CUQ

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.

…..

So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Can You Do Good Pastoral Counseling With Bad Pastoral Theology?

I decided to move some articles from an old blog of mine on Pastoral Theology. That is why some of my posts here are more about pastoral counseling and theology rather than “classic” missions. But since I am in missions and am an administrator at a pastoral counseling center, it is not NOT missions. 

I think this is a good question. I believe the answer to this question is YES!! I have certainly seen people who do a good job with pastoral counseling whose pastoral theology seems… inadequate. Pastoral Theology is Cyclic, Reflective, and founded on a good Theological base and on Experience.

So what are a couple of risks to pastoral counseling when one has poor pastoral theology?

  1. One’s pastoral counseling role is limited. This is if the reflection side is limited by poor or limited theology. Consider the case of Naaman the leper in the Bible. In the story, the servant girl of Naaman was able to give some wise guidance to him through his wife that there was a man in Israel who could help him. It seems as if she did not know much more than this. She did not know his name, or location. Possibly she did not know that much about the Mosaic Law or of ethics… but she knew what she she needed to tell in that specific occasion. Later in the story, other servants of Naaman also give some wise counsel. They were not even people of the Jewish faith, presumably, but they drew from good sagely wisdom that was well established in the Near East at that time. If Naaman was willing to do great tasks on the uncertain hope to be healed, why not do something easy if asked (that may take just a wee bit of humility)? These people were able to give good (pastoral) counseling but most likely their range of effectiveness would be limited.
  2. If one was doing something wrong in pastoral counseling, it is likely that one would perpetuate the mistake over and over again. The inability to learn and grow in this case would be due to poor reflection. One does not learn and grow. The story that comes to mind was a church I used to attend where at the prayer meeting, different ill people would be brought up to be prayed over. Many of them were considered to be “terminal cases.” However, in the prayer the request was that they be fully healed (not healed through death, but healed from death). The prayers were actually not so much a request but a demand. “God you said that you would do whatever we ask you to do, so we declare _________ as healed by the power of your name.” Ironically, several of these prayers were followed in a matter of days by that person’s death. I kept waiting for the members of the group to dwell on the fact that their seemed to be a powerful disconnect between their theology of God (the idea that God has obligated Himself to subvert His will to our will whenever we choose) and what God actually did.

So, Yes, good pastoral counseling can be done by those with poor pastoral theology. However, I believe that good pastoral theology increases the range of one’s pastoral counseling skills, and decreases the amount of repeating the same errors.

Empathy and Altruism

What is Empathy?

 

“Empathy” was first used as a technical term in psychology by E. B. Titchener in the 1920s. It was developed from the Greek word “empatheia” meaning “feeling into.” In practice it is commonly used to express a person’s ability to “perceive the subjective experience of another.” <Goleman, 98> A more technical (and rather philosophical) definition for empathy is “using one’s imagination as a tool so as to adopt a different perspective in order to grasp how things appear (or feel)” to someone else. <Matravers, 15>

 

It has been common to break up empathy into three major categories. The three are interrelated but one can see where it is of value to see them as separate. The first is Cognitive Empathy. This is understanding the perspective of the other. The second is Emotional Empathy. This is feeling the pain of another. The third is Compassionate Empathy. This is a connection to the other in such a way as to be motivated to respond. <Heartmanity>

 

Rather than saying they are three types of empathy, it may be more correct to say that they are three aspects of it— Head, Heart, and Hands. Ethical response comes from action linked to compassionate empathy.

 

Generally, we see something as commendable in a person if it is both ethical (morality correct— a tough thing to define in some cases), and based on proper motivation. The Anti-hero may do what is right, but do so for the wrong reasons. An employee may do what is right but because of fear or need of money. We would generally say that someone’s behavior is commendable if both the action and the motivation are commendable. A commendable action motivated by compassion would generally be seen commendable or speaking well of the person.

 

It is noteworthy that the primary emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. Commonly, it is expressed that Jesus acts to help people driven to such actions by compassion (or compassionate empathy).

 

Empathy and its Relationship to Altruism

 

But what happens if compassion is sullied? What if motivation for acts of kindness is, ultimately, selfish. Ayn Rand, the developer of the philosophical perspective known as Objectivism, has argued that actions that appear altruistic (motivated by unselfish compassion) are in fact driven by self-interest. As such, to say that a person is better because he acts from a motivation of compassion rather than from self-interest is flawed. In fact, one could even argue that the opposite is true. The one who acts openly from self-interest is superior to one who PRETENDS to do so unselfishly due to compassionate empathy. To admit to self-interest is to be honest, without deception.

 

I have been rather surprised at how many Christians (American Evangelical Christians at least) are quite comfortable with Objectivism. On the face of it, at least, it appears to be wholly unchristian. I suppose one could make the argument that since we are Fallen Creatures, we cannot act unselfishly— only God can. However, Objectivism seems to revel in that fallenness. The Bible certainly commends sacrificial love, mercy, and compassion, as well as seeking as best one can to embrace godly heart, mind, and actions. It is hard to see enlightened self-interest coming anywhere near to embracing such goals.

 

But is it true? When we say that we act from empathy/compassion, is that a fraud? Is altruism a flawed viewpoint? Philosophically, Objectivism has been challenged, and especially in the area of altruism. I wish I still had the article that was in a book that I lent to someone who never returned it (perhaps the person kept it in an acted of self-interest). The article brought up numerous points challenging the objectivist view of altruism. It had many good points, most of which I had, sadly, forgotten. However, one major point was pretty basic. The objectivist view of altruism is essentially unprovable and unassailable, because it does not lend itself to testing. It has some of the same qualities as some Freudian presuppositions regarding motivation and development. It is nigh impossible to determine true causation for actions.

 

Suppose Al (short for Altruist) was walking along a road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He sees a man who was attacked and injured by robbers. He feels compassion and takes the man to an inn and cares for him, and pays the innkeeper to continue to provide care. Was he altruistic? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Maybe he did it in hopes of getting praise from other people. Maybe he did it due to fear of shame if some found that he did not provide care. Maybe he hoped to be rewarded financially from the victim at a later date. Maybe he was addicted to the dopamine rush he gets from doing something for someone else. Maybe in a bit of enlightened self-interest he responds based on the belief that caring for the injured would ultimately be a key component for making the world a better and safer place and this would ultimately benefit himself. So is Al an altruist or a self-centered? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing and in fact if Al says “the real reason” he does something, another person can come along and (ala’ Freud) say that that is not the REAL reason or motivation at all. Rand’s opinion is not much more than opinion since it has no firm base except its own statement that it is true.

 

There is no way to tell if we act compassionately and with self-disinterest or not. Or so we could say in the past. But there have been psychological experiments, described by both Goleman and Matravers, that point to the fact that we often act in ways that seemingly cannot be explained by objectivist beliefs. This is not to say that the evidence is so overwhelming that it is impossible to interpret the results in line with a rejection of altruism, but rather that the experiments provide quite compelling evidence that people can and do act from altruistic, compassionate motivations (at times at least). You are welcome to read the experiments themselves themselves. Malavers especially lists several of these experiments, and one can evaluate them if one wishes.

 

Again, why would some Christians have problems with this? Not sure, but some Christians focus on a Creation view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as created in God’s image (Imago Dei). As such, it should be anticipated that humans love, demonstrate empathy, and demonstrate mercy that reflects in some genuine way God our Creator. Some others, however, focus on a Fall view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as fallen beings in which the image of God is now missing, or so distorted that everything we do is flawed, at least in motivation. But it seems dubious to say that accepting one view means wholly rejecting the other. The truth seems to exist in the tension of these extremes. Likewise, looking at humans as self-serving and as self-sacrificial altruists is not contradictory… but does point out the complexity of people. Any model to narrowly explains human thought, feelings, and motivation should be complex, not reductionistic.

 

Can Empathy be Misapplied?

 

But can empathy be misapplied? I think so. I have noticed a lot of lack of sympathy by Christians for people of other groups. Often these groups would fit into a category that Christians would see as sinners (meaning sinning in specific ways that in some manner goes beyond the “normal sinfulness” of the larger culture). In some cases it is a lack of sympathy for people of different beliefs or values. Some Christians even seem to pride themselves in their lack of empathy (cognitive, emotional, or compassion) for such groups. Why would that be? One theory to consider is misplaced or misapplied empathy. First, it is possible that some Christians think that they should empathize with God rather than with people they consider to be sinners. For such people, a statement like “But for the grace of God go I,” a statement supposed to suggest empathy (or at least pity) morphs into “Better them than I.” Or a statement like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” results in a lot of hate and a little love.

 

Second, however, it is possible to believe that one is displaying empathy but be dead wrong. It is possible to wrongly perceive what is going on in someone else’s life. When we demonize, stereotype, or caricaturize a group, we are likely to empathize with our own image of the other rather than the actual person. We are especially prone to do this with God since our relationship with God is mediated through secondary sources rather than direct interaction (for the most part). Some see God as one who is looking for a blood price to turn away His wrath. While this metaphor may point to valued truth, it is one-sided. But so is the other side as God who is only to be understood in terms of forgiveness and love. God is more complex than these one-sided images. If we are complex, how much more complex should we expect God to be?

 

Empathy is always incomplete because our ability to perceive another as she truly is and as she responds to the world will always be limited.

 

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

 

Matravers, Derek. Empathy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017.

 

“The Three Kinds of Empathy.” https://blog.heartmanity.com/the-three-kinds-of-empathy-emotional-cognitive-compassionate

Jonah– a parable

photo of driftwood on seashore
Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

The Woodcarver saw it on the beach.  It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.

 

The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.

It will be worth it… you just wait and see.

Developing a Theological Thanatology

Let’s just face facts for a moment.

 

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH DEATH

 

Isn’t that a crazy thought? We embrace a future and hopeful orientation. How could such an outlook ignore perhaps the most important milestone that each of us go through in the path into the future– death?  Let me give a few anecdotal evidences of this:

 

  • So many Christian books written on the Rapture. Considering that the Pre-Trib conception of Rapture is Biblically shaky at best,  it really makes one wonder why there are any books on this topic at all.  If there were 1000 books on Rapture, there should be 100,000 books on death— a certain concept and the most likely end of this part of our existence for the vast majority of potential readers.
  • So many books and websites trying to identify the day and hour of the return of Christ. I know so many people who pray that Christ will return really really soon. Why? Not sure. If one really wants to leave this earth before God is done reaching out with mercy to mankind, one should find solace that we are very much mortal and can leave well before God is finished with what he is doing.  If it is true that Christ can return any day, it is equally certain that our heart could stop in any second.
  • I have talked to a number of Evangelicals who lost a loved one. I would ask the surviving partner if he or she had talked to the other about death,  preparing for death, and addressing issues of the family after death. On several occasions the answer was something akin to “No we never talked about death. We always talked about how God was going to heal even up to the last moments.” That actually makes me a bit sad. I hope I can embrace death when the time draws near and help my family to embrace my passing as well. But if the one dying chooses to live in denial— that is their right, it should be honored I think.
  • I had been a member of a church that would pray over and over again for people to be healed. When someone got better, members would praise God. When someone died… SILENCE. No reflection on it… Did God fail? Did we fail? Is our theological perspective on death faulty? Is death a natural inevitable part of life? There was absolutely no reflection. That pastor told me that Filipinos don’t like to think about sad or difficult things. I have not seen this to be true… but I could be wrong.
  • Over the years denominations have struggled strangely with connecting Resurrection with their “Christian burial.” Does cremation (or aquamation or “natural burial” or mummification or enbalming) serve as a good or necessary Christian death or does it somehow desecrate the body. Does it draw into question resurrection or affirm it or have no relationship positive or negative to it at all. Does one need to be planted in sanctified soil or mausoleum? <I recall someone asking the former President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he visited the Philippines his thoughts on cremation. He stated that theologically speaking there is nothing wrong with cremation. However, then he went on for maybe 5 or 10 minutes explaining how burial of an uncremated body treats the body as more “sacred” than other methods. I really think he should have stopped after his first statement. The rest did not make any sense as far as I could see. Are worms and bacteria more dignified and sacred, really?>

 

I don’t know… maybe it is just me… but I think Christians need to have a better understanding of death.

 

 

 

 

  • Death is a natural, normal part of the living process.
  • Death is not a failure. It may be a result of The Curse, but it is not necessarily itself a curse.
  • Statistically speaking (and historically speaking) the most likely way that Christians have ceased and (presumably) will cease their  corporeal functioning on earth is through the stopping of the heart rather than being called up into the clouds.
  • It is healthy to talk about death in the family.
  • We need to realize that praying for someone to recover from an illness, prolonging the death process, may not only be acting in opposition to God’s will (one of the few things that we know is God’s will for everyone is that we die) but it may also be cruel. I could be wrong, but I think that if I was near death and struggling, it would be a comfort to have loved ones around me and affirming that it okay if I let go.
  • While many say that we should not speak ill of the dead, we do in fact speak ill of them when we lie about them. People are a strange combination of good and bad… of joy and pain… of the transcendent and the mundane. The dead deserve a gentle truth-telling (and perhaps even moreso the living). <I was thinking that it was Robert Heinlein who described a role in future funerals where a person would deeply study a deceased person’s life and then share it, warts and all, at the funeral. It was seen as honoring and cathartic. Maybe it was Orson Scott Card, not Heinlein. Card wrote a book called “Speaker for the Dead.” Maybe that was it.>
  • Funerals and burials are still a place where secular people often draw on religion or at least religious rituals of passage as a coping aid. As such, the church should come up with better ways to address this important transition more reflectively than “Oh good. We can plug a gospel presentation to this group of trapped grievers!”
  • We need to find ways to express our faith but also honor the cultures we are in.

 

I was raised up in farming country where we understand all too well that our survival comes from the death of animals and plants, and that death is part of a very normal and healthy life cycle. My father (although professionally an engineer) served as the sexton for our community cemetery. I helped out there. He was also a bit of a local genealogist and would spend freetime often visiting cemeteries to record data from headstones, as well as digging up census data to work out family trees. I would help him maintain the cemetery and once or twice even helped dig a grave. Although my connection with death is not overly deep, it is strong enough for me to realize that a body (embalmed or not) in the ground would need to be resurrected through miraculous means every bit as powerful as that needed to resurrect cremains, aquamation remains, mummified remains and the like.

 

Anyway, don’t want to drag this out too far. But as Christians we need Theological Thanatology.

 

Thanatology is “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.”

 

But we need a theological Thanatology that is systematic, practical, and pastoral. And it should not be hidden in the confines of dusty library shelves, or seminary lecture halls. It should be practiced in the presence of death and dying, and taught in the churches.

 

<I noticed that the Youtube Channel “Ask a Mortician” has several hundred thousand subscribers. While she does do a good job of coming up with interesting topics to pull in “death enthusiasts,” I can’t help but think that part of her appeal is that she answers the questions that people avoid talking about, and normalizes a process that many are trained to think of as abnormal.>

The Mumu in the Mirror

Some time ago, I was at a person’s house. I don’t know the person that well— more of a friend of a friend. That person, I will call “Deb” for the purpose of this story, took me to a mirror in her house and asked me to pray. She had seen a “mumu” (one of the Philippine terms for ghost) in the mirror, and wanted me to pray that whatever is in the mirror, or is being seen in the mirror would go away. (Talking later to some others, two more people had noted seeing something similar in that mirror.)

I am rather agnostic when it comes to things like this. There are people who believe in ghosts and people who do not believe in ghosts. Trying to sound smart, perhaps, I like to say that I believe “phenomenologically” in ghosts. That is, I believe people see or experience something that they describe as ghosts… but I don’t know what that phenomenon really points to. I am not convinced that praying against a mirror would change that phenomenon.

This situation reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague in the area of pastoral counseling. I was asked whether I would ever recommend a form of therapy that I did not believe in. My answer at the was a bit convoluted. However, if I wanted to simplify it a bit, I would say the following:

  • I would not recommend a therapy that I believe is inappropriate or unhelpful.
  • However… I would not try to prevent a person from using a therapy that he/she thinks would be valuable, UNLESS I believe that the therapy is clearly harmful

This second point is based on the realization that of the four primary indicators of a successful therapeutic treatment, only one of the four is the general effectiveness of the the therapeutic method itself. The others (I am doing this by memory right now… I will double-check later) are the competence of the therapist in the treatment, the relationship between the client and therapist, and the faith the client has in the treatment process (the “placebo effect”).

So, bringing it back to the mirror. I don’t know what Deb and the others saw, and I don’t know what needs to be done to make sure that they don’t see it again. I am not going to gainsay a method based on my own ignorance. I also know that Deb places a fair bit of trust in me as a religious practitioner to be of help. Further, I am pretty sure that whatever I do, it is unlikely that my actions would make things worse (although I cannot guarantee this).

So what did I do? Actually, a friend of mine was with me with more experience in these types of prayers. I asked him to pray. However, I did not simply ask him to pray that no one sees a mumu in the mirror. I asked my friend with me, a pastor, to pray a blessing on the house (including the issue of the mirror and the mumu). Some day, I should ask if the problem is now gone.

I think this answer fits into the category “do no harm.” That being said, one goal is to get the client not to rely on the religious professional, but to understand that she has access to God. I want God to be her God, and the God of her house.