Monday, June 11, 2012

Presbyterians, Pain, and Persecution

Perplexity about Presbyterians 

Most of the non-physical pain I have experienced has been caused by me – my fallen, sinful, mortal self. I am also my own worst persecutor. As the risen Christ told Paul, it is hard to kick against the pricks, especially those of one’s own making. To say these things is not to say engage in unhealthy self-deprecation. Nor is it the kind of defensive thing one must say before going to say what he really believes. It is simply an acknowledgement of reality. (BTW, I loved the statement I read somewhere several months ago, that if mental health is judged by the correspondence of one’s subjective perception with external reality, pessimists get the better of optimists.)

Here is what baffles and perplexes, however, when one looks at relationships (outside the bonds of family where most of us experience the best and worst of interpersonal relations) and one’s experiences of pain: Most of the pain I have experienced has been caused by Presbyterian Christians. This is by no means peculiar to me. I have heard the same “testimony” from many. I expect, if they were free to be honest with themselves and others, a great number of Christians would say the same. Moreover, I know there are Christians who would cite me as a source of pain in their lives.  As I think about Christian biography, I wonder if what I describe is not generally true. For instance, what was the source of the greatest pain in Calvin’s life? And to whom did he give the greatest pain? As I understand the Bible Christians are comforters and encouragers to one another. That is the experience of all of us some of the time. It is the experience of some most of the time. But for a great many Christian comfort and encouragement is their experience very little of the time.

What is true of pain is also true of persecution. The Bible tells us to expect and to rejoice in persecution – of us by the world. They hated Jesus, and they will hate those who follow him. But, I am hard-pressed to cite examples of persecution by the world of me. What at least feels like persecution has come from other Presbyterians. Moreover, when I read the Psalms where the Psalmist complains of what others are doing to him, and I think about praying them back to God, Christians are the ones I need to pray about – albeit without the protestation of personal innocence and the confidence of personal righteousness one finds in the Psalmists. I do not think this is peculiar to me. Just as one example: I have read recently a pained account by church members of their dealings with a reformed minister whom they feel intentionally persecuted them. I also stipulate that I think that others would complain of persecution by me. As I read Christian biography autobiography, I wonder about this, too, if this has not always been the case. Think again of Calvin.

Another thing under the sun that vexes me much is why empathy and help in such times come from those of more “moderate” persuasion. At one of the worst times of my life, when I was feeling both pained and persecuted, two who invited me to lunch and who showed compassion were Rudy, a Lutheran pastor, and Bo, an Episcopal priest. The brother ministers of my own denomination not only did not do that much. They were doing what I perceived as persecution and surely felt as pain. I suppose one could explain the “reaching out” of Lutheran and Episcopalian as a manifestation of their general laxity. That may go part of the way, but I don’t think that will do as the whole explanation. 

As a Christian who is a lifelong Presbyterian, what I observe and describe about pain and persecution in my life and the lives of others is almost exclusively within a Presbyterian context.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps you do. Feel free to enlighten me. 

I have to think it is not supposed to be this way, and that it could be better, which is another way of asking, “Why does the church have so much trouble acting like the church?” What I know is that the world to come has got to be different – when” perfect love and friendship” will “reign throughout eternity.” I guess one salutary consequence of the perplexing reality of the present is that it creates a longing for what is to be.

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