I have been much affected by Henri Nouwen’s works on pastoral theology. I was first introduced to Nouwen during CPE, and later studied his work “The Wounded Healer” in detail. What occurred to me while studying his work, and learning other things about myself in my formation as a deacon, is the notion of what I call The Flawed Healer.
What I learned in my formation exists on two different levels, one on a micro-level and another on a macro-level. The micro I have described in detail in another longer essay not found in this blog – my own personal flaws of entitlement, anger, and self-absorption – but the macro is the subject of this essay. I learned that, as a white heterosexual man, I have been the recipient of great privilege, and this privilege has been at the expense, even the exploitation and oppression, of anyone not white, not heterosexual, and not male. Society has suffered greatly at the hands of my color, sexuality, and gender, and the church has suffered immense harm from our “leadership”. I discovered that I was not one of the wounded, but a wounder.
This makes for a very flawed person, both the micro-me and the macro-me; someone who is a victimizer, not a victim. To see oneself as a victimizer, a perpetrator-of-wounds, is revolting to a Christian. You previously saw yourself as compassionate, but you realize that you are actually the beneficiary of cruelty and selfishness. You thought yourself someone sane and civilized, but your sanity and civility was bought with madness and viciousness. You are the religious hypocrite of sacred scripture, not the beloved disciple. You are one of the crucifiers, not the crucified.
This revelation produces great guilt and shame, which leads to pervasive self-doubt. We are responsible for the pain and suffering of others; we are the ones who thwarted God’s plans. We thought we were “getting it right”, and we were totally wrong. We become so ashamed of what we have done that we cannot face the people we harmed. We wish to hide, knowing we are unworthy of their company, ashamed to look them in the eye. The self-loathing creates a crush of despair.
We despair of ourselves and our faith. We wanted so desperately to do God’s will, and we failed so catastrophically, that we shall evermore lead a life dominated by self-doubt. How can we ever trust our judgment again? If we dare engage the Beloved Community again, what is to prevent us from screwing it all up even worse? The answer is, “Nothing.”
It is no great surprise that many men in my position simply drop out, quit, withdraw. Based on what we have learned about our lack of abilities, our lack of judgment, and the subsequent shame of our behavior, we just want to stop the suffering – theirs and ours. If you want to stop hurting people, you stop – period.
You cannot be trusted behind the wheel of the church bus, so to say, so stop trying to drive. Go take a seat with the rest of the passengers or get off the bus. Some of us do take another seat, while others are too ashamed – they pull the cord overhead, stop the bus, and get off. It is better for everyone involved. The men who step off the bus are seldom seen again. The men who stay on the bus are so withdrawn that they might as well not be there. They are ghosts.
Is there any value in our despair and self-loathing? If we have been denounced and rejected by the Beloved Community, if we have lost faith in our very selves, what then does the Christian do? Where does he turn? After all, God is found in the Body of Christ, the very Beloved Community we have victimized. We have wounded Christ’s own self: “…whatever you did for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” Matt. 25:40
We find ourselves in a very dark place. But the quote above from Matthew brings to mind two other biblical verses, coming unbidden as if the Holy Spirit has decided to intervene. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27. And…
The Lord will make good his purpose for me;/ Oh Lord, your love endures forever;/ Do not abandon the works of your hands. -Psalm 138:9
If we have not despaired to the point of losing faith in the promises of Jesus, then can we find peace, and can we find purpose? If we have not despaired beyond the point of no return, then, as Henri Nouwen might ask, “What can lead us into tomorrow?”
As flawed as we are, we are still God’s own. We can find peace in the promise that God has a purpose for us, and will make good on that purpose, despite our flaws – maybe even because of them. We need not be troubled and afraid of ourselves as we move to another seat in the bus, or even disembark. We can find peace and purpose, even forgiveness.
Firstly, it actually may be impossible to “quit”. The Beloved Community – the Kingdom of God – does not start and stop at the church door. It is all around us. If we step off the bus in order to drop out, we only discover that the Kingdom is also there on the sidewalk. We used to see the face of God in our fellow bus passengers; now we see the face of God in the eyes of total strangers, wandering the streets.
Secondly, purpose can be found in our own flaws. A humility and wisdom gained from the brokenness of our flaws may help the work of God’s hands. Silence born of self-doubt can create real presence. Modesty born of failure can create the peace of no demands. Service without expectation of reward yields compassion; guilt for past sins creates mercy. Presence, modesty, peace, service, compassion, mercy, all the fruits of Christian healing and hospitality can come from our flaws.
We can now appreciate and understand that each and every person we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. We need to be non-judgmental, always. We can now appreciate and understand that each and every person is mourning a loss we cannot fathom. We need to be kind, always.
No matter where we are, on the bus or on the sidewalk, we are always among Jesus’ brothers and sisters. We must remember we are the work of God’s hands everywhere, no matter our flaws. I suspect that those of us who have come to this point will discover that this is going to be a lonely ride. I foresee isolation in our alienation. The Beloved Community will no longer completely trust us, and we are strangers to the people on the sidewalk. We will not be embraced by much of anyone for a while. We will have to find affirmation in our efforts, and in the peace of Jesus, who does not give peace as the world gives.
Can we help people fight their silent battles and mourn their anonymous losses, despite our flaws? Can we find peace and purpose, even forgiveness, through our flaws? “Two men went into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector…” it starts out in Luke 18:9-14. One was self-righteous, the other repentant. Which one went home justified?