Sunday, October 26, 2014

Most Beautiful Run Ever (and the pictures to prove it)

I like to run.  I don't go very fast, so I'm not in any danger of winning any races.  But running has given me something positive to do during a season of my life that has not been very positive.  Presently I am working towards running the Richmond (VA) Half Marathon on Saturday, November 15.  I talked my oldest daughter into joining me, so we're both working hard to be able to cross the finish line on race day.

I ran the Richmond marathon last year, but a hamstring strain earlier this summer set my training back.  I'm not complaining - I'm just glad I'm still able to run.  At my age, every day I can get out and run some miles is a gift.

Yesterday was one such gift.  I had worked up to the place where a 16 mile run could happen.  So I plotted my route, set out my water at mile 7 and 13, packed my energy chews, walked out the front door and started.  It was a perfect fall day, cool with bright morning sun.  I ran and ran and ran.  Two hours and forty five minutes later I chugged up the last slow rise and found myself back where I started.

I spent the whole run avoiding traffic and astonished at the beauty all around me.  After lunch and a nap I went back out with a camera and retraced my steps.  This is where I ran and what I saw:

Mile 0 - My street and my starting line.  That's the Blue Ridge in the background, on top of which is Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trial.

Mile 2 - Pasture and a foothill of the Blue Ridge

Mile 3 - Apple orchard

Mile 3 - Looking east
Mile 3 - Looking east

Mile 4 - Blue Ridge
Mile 4 - More Blue Ridge
Mile 4.5 - Virginia Vineyard

Mile 4.5 - Drink Virginia Wine!

Mile 5 - Big Day in White Hall, VA

Mile 5 - White Hall, VA.  Not much more than this.

Mile 6 - Pasture on Sugar Hollow Road

Mile 7 - Moorman's Creek at Sugar Hollow Road bridge

Mile 9 - The view from White Hall

Mile 10 - Running past a White Hall house

Mile 11 - Farm on Brown's Gap Tpk

Mile 12 - Country Roads (running down the middle of)
Mile 13 - Mountain Plains Baptist Church cemetery

Mile 13 - View across field
Mile 13 - Mountain Plain Baptist Church, circa 1812 (it was a Presbyterian Church before then!)

Mile 13.5 - This way home

Mile 15 - Ran right by the taproom of our local Brewery.  Waved at friends.  Sorely tempted to  stop for a pint...

Mile 16 - Ran through our 'downtown'

Mile 16.3 - Finish Line!

Home again.  My room is upstairs on the left.  Where I take naps after long runs like this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Perils of Being Honest

So did you ever vote for Obama?
Have you traveled from West Africa recently?
Have you stopped beating your spouse?
Have you looked at porn in the past month?
Did you cheat on a test or a paper?

We so want to think of ourselves as truthful, honest people.  But even a few simple questions like these are enough to make many of us uncomfortable.  Turns out, our definitions of ‘truth’ can become rather elastic, and our self-requirements for honesty can be selective at best.

We have a complicated relationship with truth.  On the one hand, we are taught from earliest years to always tell the truth.  We are told as students to turn in work that is our own, and not work that has been copied from someone else and presented as our own.  We know that bearing false witness breaks one of the Ten Commandments.  We implicitly trust news sources and ‘authorities’ and even friends and our spouses to be telling the story accurately.  Our society finds not telling the truth so threatening that there are laws against it.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to make a liar out of an otherwise upstanding, church-going citizen.  Most people lie constantly, and even about the most inane things.  If there might be negative consequences to telling the truth, then one might find it in one’s interest to mislead the person or institution or application doing the asking.  Sometimes we avoid telling the truth, not with an outright lie but by not saying anything at all.  These things happen in relationships, they happen in business, they happen amongst professionals, they happen with respect to law enforcement, they happen in churches - especially in churches.  We tend to be in favor of the truth, just so long as someone else has to be telling it.  We will happily tell ‘the truth’ if it is to our advantage to do so.  But if doing so will in some way disadvantage us, then we will find a way to keep quiet if we can, and lie if we must.  Full disclosure: been there, done that.

In junior high school (‘Middle School’ for my younger readers), there was a group of boys in the back who habitually passed answers to tests back and forth to each other.  Everybody knew that this was ‘cheating’ and that it should be stopped.  But nobody, myself included, ‘told the truth’ and reported what was going on.  We were afraid of being labeled a snitch or worse, were afraid of being beaten up after school.  We all looked the other way.  And for all the energy put into this nefarious behavior, I don’t think it actually improved their academic trajectory.  Even so, the boys in the back learned a very important lesson, namely that threats can buy impunity.

There’s the story of the boy who was exposed to porn and then sexually abused at a relative’s house.  This boy was afraid of what would happen if he told the truth.  He was afraid that no one would believe him.  He was afraid that it was his fault.  He was afraid that if other people found out what happened that he would be called a ‘fag’ and that he would lose his friends.  He was afraid that he might actually be a ‘fag’, but it was too dangerous ever to talk with anybody about it.  So he kept quiet.  This boy was a Christian, and he grew up to become a respected Christian leader.  But he struggled inside for years as he tried to keep from himself and everyone else what happened to him so long ago.  And decades later, when he finally did summon the courage to get help and confront and tell the truth about his past and its implications for his present, he found that his worst fears actually did happen.  He was rejected by his spouse.  He was labeled ‘gay’ and shunned by many of his friends, most of whom were also Christian leaders.  And despite the rhetoric to the contrary in society and the loud protestations on the part of Christians as to how terrible lying is, the lesson this man has learned from all the people around him is that continuing to lie might actually have been preferable to telling the truth.

I teach courses in history and theology.  There are a number of students at one of the schools where I teach who come out of academic backgrounds that did not enforce any policies against plagiarism.  When they get to my class, however, they find they have to write a term paper.  Invariably, a number of them do what they have always done before, which is go online, copy a paper from a website, reformat it a bit, put their name on it and then turn it in as if it is their work.  They get caught every time.  They don’t realize that their lecturer is pretty good at recognizing that the flawless 19th century English used throughout the paper or the specialized vocabulary found throughout is rather beyond the reach of the student whose name is on it.  Just saying.  Moreover, I can type any phrase from the paper in question into Google and the source comes right up.  It’s that easy.  So the student gets a ‘0’, which is precisely what I said would happen in my course syllabus if a case of plagiarism presented itself to me.  And almost every time I have a parade of anguished students come to my office claiming they had no idea that this was plagiarism (never mind I had gone over in detail what plagiarism is and what the penalty for doing it was going to be).   Some are offended that I gave them a ‘0’ and demand that I give them a higher grade (for the work they did?).  Some say that this is how they have always written papers and they have always gotten good grades before(!).  Almost all of them demand that I allow them to redo the assignment.  Often there is a delegation of offended plagiarizers who troop off to the dean’s office to complain about the way I’ve taught the course and the terrible injustice of my grading and to insist that they be given another chance.  I will then usually be asked by the dean to give these poor students another chance.  I grumble but comply.  And then watch in amazement as some of the students run off and plagiarize again.  Oh, and did I say that this was a Christian school?

I was the pastor of a large Protestant church.  I had struggled for several years with depression, though it was now being controlled with medication.  At a leadership retreat with my elders, I shared with them something of my struggle, thinking that by being vulnerable, I was setting an example for our leaders to follow.  I was trying to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable, too.  I was of the persuasion that we cannot find healing for those things we cannot admit.  Imagine my surprise when a delegation of my elders came to my office the next week and strongly suggested that I step down and go away.  Evidently, depression was too shameful a thing for a pastor to have.  At any rate, these elders didn’t want to have anything to do with a Christian pastor who was less than perfect.  And I learned that if one is in a leadership position in the church, honesty about one’s weaknesses or struggles is not something anybody is interested in.  It took two more years, but eventually these elders succeeded in making it untenable for me to continue.  It was pretty awful.

Turns out that much of the trouble I’ve found myself in at different points in my life came as a consequence of being honest.  And if I were in the slightest way tempted to be cynical, the take-aways from this would seem to be
1. Turn a blind eye to people around you who are doing wrong because they might hurt you.
2. Don’t tell anybody what you are really struggling with because she will turn around and use it against you.
3. Don’t hold others to any standard of truth-telling because they will resent you and make your life very difficult.
4. You should lie about who you are, what you are thinking and how you are feeling; in other words, tell the people around you what they want to hear.  Almost nobody wants their life being messed up by the truth.
I don’t think I will try to resolve this.  It is enough to point out the significant gulf between our rhetoric and our reality.  And I must say that I am not very impressed (any more) about all the faux spiritual language tossed around by those claiming special nearness to the Almighty.  Yes indeed, Jesus did say, ‘I am…the truth’, and, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’  But the most religious, the most hyper-spiritual have tended to be the most judgmental and truth-suppressing people I’ve ever come across (I allow that my experience may not be yours).  Such people make the Church, which Christ has designed and called to be the safest place for sinners on the planet, into a museum of the holy, with themselves on prime display.  A twelve-step meeting full of drunkard, drug or sex addicted ‘sinners’ is closer to the kingdom of God than many self-described ‘churches’ full of the so-called saved.

Jesus suffered for being honest, more than any of us can ever know.  So did the apostles.  And the martyrs.  So has anyone who has ever wrestled with denying oneself, picking up one’s cross, and following in Jesus’ footsteps.  The pressure on us to compromise the truth in all its manifestations is immense.  At every new point we are confronted with a new opportunity to corrupt the truth – the truth about ourselves, about our neighbor, about our past, about our God.  And yet this is where the battle presses home, in my life and in yours, in my present and in yours.  Not just every day, but every moment.  And it comes down to this with every point of awareness – will I be a man who lives the truth?  Or will I be a man who lives a lie?  I’ve lived long enough to know that these are the hardest questions I will ever face.  And I suspect they will be your hardest questions as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Verbal Abuse in Marriage – The Hidden Cancer

'A time to keep silent and a time to speak.'
Ecclesiastes 3:7b

With exceptions, verbal abuse in any relationship is about control.  It is often a highly successful strategy to excerpt power over another because the abused partner often assumes that his or her spouse is ‘on the same page’ as them in terms of mutual goals, mutual values and mutual perspectives.  The abused partner often can’t imagine that his/her spouse doesn’t share the same mutual affection and concern for each one’s mutual best.  The abused spouse considers their relationship to be about love, partnership and mutuality; the abusing spouse is rather all about control.

What follows is a list of characteristics of a marriage scarred by verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse is usually perpetuated by a man towards his wife, although a wife may also verbally abuse her husband.

Verbal abuse against a spouse is almost never committed in public; rather it’s done in secret when the two are alone.  Only the partner of the abuser hears it.

Verbal abuse usually becomes more intense over time.  The partner either adapts and more pressure is needed to accomplish the same results, or the partner begins to resist and greater intensity is needed to maintain control.

The verbal abuser consistently denies, discounts and/or minimizes the partner’s perception of the abuse.

The verbal abuser invalidates his/her partner’s perspective, experience, feelings, and ultimately his/her person in an effort to maintain control and power over the spouse.

One does not enter into a relationship expecting to be verbally abused.  As a result, the experience can be wholly disorienting.  One may feel one is going crazy.  ‘How can he/she say these things about me and treat me this way, when he/she doesn’t treat anybody else like this?’  One begins to doubt one’s experience, or one’s perception.  One begins to believe what the abuser says about them or about the circumstances.  One feels verbally beaten into submission.  One will often do whatever the spouse is demanding, however demeaning, just to stop the abuse.  One feels isolated and afraid to mention their experiences to anyone else because one is afraid that no one will believe me.

When verbal abuse is perpetuated by a wife against a husband, there is often, along with the usual disorientation that accompanies this abuse, a great sense of shame felt by the man that that hinders his ability to admit that he is being treated this way or that he might need help.

Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship (2010), gives this guide to help women and men recognize if they are in a verbally abusive relationship:

Verbal abuse is hostile aggression.  The abuser is not provoked by his (her) mate. The abuser may consciously or even unconsciously deny what he (she) is doing.  In any case, he is not likely to wake up one day and say, “Oh my!  Look at what I have been doing.  I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it anymore.”  No one but the partner experiences it.  Usually only the partner can recognize it.  The aggression can be recognized because the impact of the behavior on the victim is a hurtful one.

Generally the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse rests with the partner of the abuser, because the abuser is not motivated to change.  However, the partner may have difficulty recognizing the abuse for what it is because she (he) is led to doubt her (his) feelings.  For example, if she (he) feels hurt or upset by something her (his) mate has said and she (he) expresses her (his) feeling, saying, “I felt bad when you said that,” the verbal abuser¸ instead of recognizing her feeling and responding appropriately, will reject and invalidate her (his) feelings by saying something like, “I don’t know what you are talking about.  You’re too sensitive [or selfish, or you are avoiding responsibility, etc.].  The partner then doubts her (his) own perceptions.  Why?  In childhood, like many, she (he) may have been taught that her (his) feelings were to be ignored.  Feelings, however, are essential to our being, because they are the criteria by which we determine if something is wrong or unsafe.

When the partner can recognize and validate her (his) feelings, she (he) can begin to recognize verbal abuse.  In other words she (he) might say:
            I feel hurt, I am being hurt.
            I feel diminished, I am being diminished.
            I feel unrecognized, I am being unrecognized.
            I feel ignored, I am being ignored.
            I feel made fun of, I am being made fun of.
            I feel discounted, I am being discounted.
            I feel closed off, I am being closed off.
            [I feel minimized, I am being minimized.
I feel invalidated, I am being invalidated.]
If the partner shares her (his) feelings with the perpetrator of the aggression, you can be absolutely certain, he (she) will invalidate them….  The partner may then doubt the truth of her (his) own perceptions.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 24-25)

Verbal abuse covers a spectrum of behaviors, and comes from a spectrum of personalities.  Evans states that the verbal abuser may be any combination of the following traits:
Likely to blame his/her mate for his (her) outbursts or actions
Unpredictable (you never know what will anger him/her)
Unaccepting of his/her mate’s feelings or views
Unexpressive of warmth and empathy
Silent and uncommunicative in private or, frequently, demanding or argumentative
A ‘nice guy’ to others
Competitive towards his/her partner
Quick with comebacks or put-downs
Unexpressive of his [her] feelings

Usually the partner of a verbal abuser finds it difficult to see her/his mate objectively and clearly.  This is especially true if she/he does not realize that her mate is, so to speak, in a different reality.  He/she is not seeking mutuality.  He/she is seeking to control and dominate.  His/her behavior may be so changeable that his/her partner is kept off balance and is confused without knowing it.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 39-40)

So verbal abuse is more than just using harsh words; it’s more than the normal way couples quarrel.  It is, in fact, an entirely different way of relating, with the abusing spouse making use of  different means and different ends than those assumed by the abused partner.  According to Evans (40), relationships marked by verbal abuse share the following characteristics:

Often present                           Often lacking
Inequality                                Equality
Competition                             Partnership
Manipulation                           Mutuality
Hostility                                   Goodwill
Control                                    Intimacy         
Negation                                  Validation

Combinations of these dynamics are embedded in the very fabric of the relationship itself, making it very difficult to pull out one without unraveling the whole.  Without any realization on the part of the abuser, the relationship will ultimately fail, or continue to be enabled by the abused partner who continues to believe the abuser above what his/her heart is telling them.

A pattern of verbal and emotional abuse may continue in a relationship for a very long time.  The abused partner may believe the abuser’s constant accusations that he/she is only getting what they deserve.  The abused partner may feel that the consequences of trying to put a stop to the pain will be worse than his/her ongoing attempts to manage and live with the abuse.  The abused partner may be an accommodator, trying everything he/she knows to appease the abusing partner in hopes that the abuse will finally stop.  The abused partner may feel he/she will lose too much by leaving the abusing partner.  And/or the abused partner may be in denial, choosing to believe that it isn’t so bad.

In relationships where one or both partners profess to be Christians, the abused partner may feel obligated to ‘love’ the abusing spouse, to endure his/her partner’s abuse for the sake of Christ and for the sake of their family, to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the second mile’, to submit to the other ‘as unto the Lord,’ to love his wife ‘as Christ loves the Church,’ to forgive the abusing spouse again and again and again in hopes that their ‘Christian attitude’ towards their abusing spouse will result in the abusing spouse ‘getting it’ and ‘repenting’.  In my experience, I’ve never seen these ‘Christian’ responses lead to anything other than increasing contempt.  For this reason, abused spouses often feel trapped between the intolerable verbal abuse they are experiencing and what they think ‘Christian love’ demands of them in their marriage.  And because no one on the outside sees the abuse or understands the increasingly awful dynamic that characterizes their relationship, the abused partner is left to make these choices alone, and the abusing spouse is free to carry on with impunity.

Whatever its causes, and for whatever reason it is tolerated, verbal abuse is a cancer that metastasizes to affect the entire relationship.  Verbal abuse will kill a relationship, sooner or later.  Sadly, because other personality factors are often at work in the abusing spouse, even when confronted they will almost never acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.  And if the abuser cannot or will not admit their role in their marriage, there is nothing that can be done to save it.  Divorce in this case becomes the only way the cycle of abuse can be stopped.  The Bible says that God hates divorce.  And for good reason.  But there are things worse than divorce.  And if the abusing spouse refuses to become a partner in repentance with the abused spouse, then divorce merely makes official what has already happened as a result of the abuse.

May God spare you from ever finding yourself in a verbally-abusive relationship.  And should the descriptions above describe something of your own experience, may God give you the courage to get help and to take the steps you need to take to get out of that toxic relationship before it destroys you.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Choosing the One Thing Needful

I’ve noticed this clamoring fear in my heart, this fear that some piece of slander will turn friends into enemies, that malice will finish the grand undoing of my life.  I find it so very easy to place myself on that same field of play, to try my hand at the very same game of undoing to others what took decades to do, of giving as good as I get.  But this is the way of death.  There is no love in treating someone else this way.  Joy flees, as does peace.  Patience evaporates and kindness is seen as a weakness.  Goodness ceases to matter, and gentleness is taken as a mark of impotence.  Self-control is cast aside as a useless obstruction to what the self should do for itself.  It’s a prep school for hell.

I find myself also thinking that if only I still lived in a home with a family full to the brim with the fruit of love and respect, rather than as a boarder in another person’s house.  If only I was back in Kenya teaching eager students rather than spending long hours pulling weeds and trimming trees and shrubs.  If only I lived in a place where people knew me and where I belonged rather than in a foreign land where I must start everything from scratch.

But I am reminded today that this sort of thinking comes from an unhealthy, unhealed place.  I am reminded today that none of this is needful.  I am reminded today that there are bigger things that God is concerned about in my life, things which transcend my current broken family, my current state of exile away from what was my life in Kenya. 

I’ve been reading a kind of autobiography by Elder Porphyrios, Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, and today’s pages were like a cool drink in the middle of a long hot day of hard work.  Let me share with you some things that are meaningful to me today:

Let us love Christ and let our only hope and care be for Him.  Let us love Christ for His own sake only.  Never for our sake.  Let Him put us wherever He likes.  Let Him give us whatever He wishes.  Don’t let’s love Him for His gifts….  What we should say rather is: ‘My Christ, whatever Your love dictates; it is sufficient for me to live within Your love.’

 As for myself, poor soul…what can I say…I am very weak.  I haven’t managed to love Christ so very fervently and for my soul to long for Him.  I feel that I have a very long way to go.  I haven’t arrived at where I want to be; I don’t experience this love.  But I’m not discouraged.  I trust in the love of God.  I say to Christ: ‘I know I’m not worthy: Send me wherever Your love wishes.  That’s what I desire, that’s what I want.  During my life I always worshipped You.’

 When I was seriously ill and on the point of leaving this life, I didn’t want to think about my sins.  I wanted to think about the love of my Lord, my Christ, and about eternal life.  I didn’t want to feel fear.  I wanted to go to the Lord and to think about His goodness, His love.  And now that my life is nearing its end, I don’t feel anxiety or apprehension, but I think that when I appear at the Second Coming and Christ says to me: Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?  I will bow my head and I will say to Him: ‘Whatever you want, my Lord, whatever your love desires.  I know I am not worthy.  Send me wherever your love wishes.  I am fit for hell.  And place me in hell, as long as I am with You.  There is one thing I want, one thing I desire, one thing I ask for, and that is to be with You, wherever and however You wish.’
Elder Porphyrios (1906-1991)

I try to give myself over entirely to the love and worship of God.  I have consciousness of my sinfulness, but I live with hope.  It is bad to despair, because someone who despairs becomes embittered and loses his willingness and strength.  Someone who has hope, on the contrary, advances forward.  Because he feels that he is poor, he tries to enrich himself.  What does a poor man do?  If he is smart, he tries to find a way to become rich.

 And so in spite of the fact that I feel weak and that I haven’t achieved what I desire, I nevertheless do not fall into despair.  It is a consolation to me, as I’ve told you, that I don’t cease to try continually.  Yet I don’t do what I want to do.  Pray for me.  The point is that I cannot love Christ absolutely without His grace.  Christ does not allow His love to show itself if my soul does not have something which will attract Him.

 And perhaps I lack that something.  And so I entreat God and say, ‘I am very weak, O Christ.  Only You with Your grace will be able to allow me to say along with Saint Paul the Apostle, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me.

 This is what preoccupies me.  I try to find ways to love Christ.  This love is never sated.  However much you love Christ, you always think that you don’t love Him and you long all the more to love Him.  And without being aware of it, you go higher and higher!  [Wounded By Love (Denis Harvey, publisher: Limni, Evia, Greece, 2005), 97-99]

It is enough to be with You.  To be where You wish me to be.  To do what You wish me to do.  To go where You wish me to go.