Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday Musings

This year, for Lent, I decided to give up cynicism and bitterness.

Now, those who know me know that there are very few things about which I am cynical, and even fewer about which I am bitter.

Those friends with whom I talk politics know that I'm something of a cynic when it comes to the GOP. Those who have lived with me in community know that the one thing about which I can easily become quite bitter is the state of the kitchen.

Living again with other people, and being the only person who regularly cooks communal meals, and who regularly washes not only my own dishes, but everybody else's as well (even when they've chosen to ignore the meal I have, at times, spent hours preparing and cook something else). I'm the one who washes the pans, the cooking utensils, the bowls, plates, glasses, and flatware. I'm the only one who ever bothers to wipe down the counters (which leads me to believe that those who leave breadcrumbs on the counters are secretly hoping to kill me), to clean the stove, to wash down the sinks, to put the dishes away. I'm the only one who ever bothers to wash the dishrags and towels. This also means that I'm the only one who ever washes the bath towels and wash cloths.

I will readily admit that at least once a month, I find myself getting angry and resentful and having to remind myself quite intentionally that I'm the one who chooses to do these things, and I want to do them from of a posture of loving those with whom I live, because I'm grateful for all of the love that God has shown me. I tell myself I do it as an act of love, not because I have a significantly lower threshold for filth than the men in the house. Most of the time, this is true.

Today, after spending a few days sick, and finally running out of energy, of having washed my own dishes (including the pots, pans, and baking dishes I used in preparing communal meals), and nothing else for two days because I was just too tired, I felt that anger, resentment, and bitterness beginning to well up as I stared at the pile of dirty pans and dishes from everyone else, getting higher and higher every day.

So, around 12:15 I stopped, considered that it was Ash Wednesday, and realizing I hadn't chosen anything to give up for Lent yet, decided to give up bitterness and cynicism.

Well, it was a good effort. And I failed, BIG TIME, six and an half hours later.

There I was, at church, preparing myself for the service, and I found myself filled with anger, bitterness, cynicism, and oodles and oodles of absolute hatred.

About three and an half years ago, I was introduced to The Upper Room by a then friend.

It was an interesting introduction. As a devout...well, I'd tried my hand at a lot of things, but I am and have always been in my heart a staunch UCC member, I had never before come across this Methodist devotional, put out every two months with a reading each day, written by the readers themselves. The person who introduced me to this devotional had grown up Methodist. His family of origin was still methodist. Though he had begun in adulthood to attend an RCA church, his parents still paid for a subscription to The Upper Room for him, and so it was that one day, he shared a devotional with me, and I began subscribing to their online e-version.

It was around this time that this individual and I went from friends to something else. Though all evidence and professional opinions dictate this was a romantic dating relationship, the individual in question will deny to his dying breath that it was ever anything more than a friendship, and his sole intention through the relationship was to disciple me and point me always to love of Christ, blow jobs and detailed sexual fantasies per his request notwithstanding. And let's not forget the nights in Hana.

Now, given that I've mentioned that this individual was then my friend, you've likely picked up on the fact that we are no longer friends. As such, the best term to describe this individual is "ex." He is my ex. My ex-what is still up for grabs. Regardless, it was a significant and intimate, or so I thought, relationship that subsequently ended.

Normally, I'm not bitter about the end of relationships. Sometimes it happens naturally. People move or their lives head in different directions. You leave a common space and without regular contact the relationship just quietly fades.

Sometimes, it happens suddenly and traumatically. Through death.

Sometimes, it happens blessedly, and is promptly followed by a sigh of relief. This is the case, for me anyhow, with break ups.

This break up went something like this:

An e-mail from him:

"I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. I no longer want to be your friend. I do not want any contact with you in the future."

My reply:

"The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."

This was promptly followed by an enormous sigh of relief as I spoke aloud to myself, "Thank God it's finally over."

I was relieved, and glad. It was painful, sure, but after months of his, "This isn't a romantic relationship for me. Let's talk about sex," and my "If this isn't a romantic relationship then I won't talk about sex with you," and his "Okay, let's talk about sex," and my "Okay. So, then, this is a romantic relationship, right?" followed by his, "No, this isn't not a romantic relationship. Tell me about this aspect of sex for you...." I was confused as hell, tired, and frustrated. I was glad it finally over.

The painful part came in the fact that this was a person who had been in my life for 10 years, someone I had met during one of the most difficult times of life, to whom I had turned during the most traumatic period of my life, and who had been my youth pastor during the first two years I knew him, and continued in that fashion on and off for the next six years while I was in college.

While I could write extensively about power dynamics and the abuse of power that comes into play when someone you met during adolescence as your youth pastor, who is twenty-seven years your senior, who insists that they still consider themselves to be your pastor, and only a pastor, and are trying to "show you the love of God" asks you for a blow job while driving down a winding road through Maui, that's not the point of this blog. And I know that I bear a degree of responsibility for what happened. I took all of the mixed messages he was sending, and tried to make them fit into some kind of a cohesive, coherent reality. Rather than looking at the push/pull, push/pull, push/pull that had been going on for months, accepting that this was, at best, a really fucked up situation, and at worst an emotionally abusive relationship, I chose, in my time of greatest need, to cling to him.

He was like the apple tree in my backyard that I used to climb as a child. When the screaming and violence got to be too much; when I couldn't stand to hear my brothers being kicked, punched, screaming their lungs out after being padlocked into a tiny wooden box; when I couldn't stand the smell of stale of beer, vomit, and cigarette smoke; when a migraine headache struck, made worse by my sister playing heavy metal so loud the walls of the house shook; then, I would sometimes sneak out my window, shimmy down the drainpipe and climb that apple tree to the highest stable branch. It ran out from the trunk at a right angle, and took another right turn upward, with another branch that shot out toward the trunk again. It was like sitting in an old school desk. I would escape up this tree and pretend that I was someplace safe. I could breathe again.

Clinging to him in the aftermath of trauma, I felt safe. I could breathe again. I could laugh again. And, oh God, it felt so good to laugh and feel, if for only a few moments each week when he'd send me an email, light, joy, less alone, and as though wholeness might someday be possible again.

So, I ignored the pulling me in and the pushing me away, because I needed someone to acknowledge my pain. I needed a witness. He was the only one willing to do it.

But after 10 months and a trip to Maui, and two nights in Hana, and the pulling me in and pushing me away, I was relieved it was over.

The bitterness I feel does not stem from the ending of this really fucked up and emotionally abusive relationship.

It comes from everything that happened after.

The after when he began emailing my best friend, whom he had never met, and telling her how he had been clear, from day one, that he wasn't interested in a romantic relationship; that he had always only tried to show the love of God; that he had always only had my best interests at heart; that everything that had happened was my fault, because I'm the one who chose to misread his intentions all along; misquoting me and rewriting history (because I've double and triple checked things, having kept a written record of everything); the after when he said he didn't want anything to do with me, but kept himself in my periphery, a constant reminder that he was in my life, and I couldn't get rid of him, but I couldn't be in his.

For four months, the after happened until I finally told my best friend, "I'm sorry, but if you're going to continue to have any contact with him, I can't have any contact with you." It wasn't about making her choose between us, but about maintaining healthy boundaries with him--if he was out, I needed him completely out, and insinuating himself in her life and making himself very present in mine through her, was not him being out.

Now, I'm a Christian, and I believe in universal salvation. I figure God is love. And as the source and embodiment of all love, God cannot condemn people to an eternity in hell. Hell, therefore, must be finite, if it exists at all. Now, I know there are LOTS of people who would argue this with me until they're blue in the face. Frankly, I'm not interested. I was there myself once--God lets the elect into heaven, and everybody who hasn't "accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior," well, I hope you like it hot, suckers!

But my experiences have shown me that God is love. God is compassion. God is forgiveness. And if God is reconciling the whole of creation to God's self, then God is reconciling the WHOLE of creation to God's self. Which means at some point, everybody gets there. I'd even go so far as to include Satan and his minions.

I am, generally, a very loving and compassionate person. I'm generous, gracious, forgiving, and a total delight to be around. People tell me on a regular, consistent basis that I'm just like sunshine.

But for this man, I'm willing to revise a few things. I'm willing to take a big step back into the Evangelical arena and reserve an eternal spot in the hell-fires just for him. I'm willing to pray that God sends him to hell where a worm that doesn't die has his name written on it and eats him, daily. I kind of hope his eternity is a bit like that of Prometheus, with fire and worms rather than an eagle.

It's hard for me to hate someone this much. Don't get me wrong, it comes perfectly naturally. I do not have to work at it. But it hurts my heart and deeply grieves me.

What's more, I thought I'd gotten over this about a year ago. I had this revelatory moment on January 23, 2010, and I thought I was done with this.

Then, tonight, I went to the Ash Wednesday service. My UCC and the neighboring UMC were holding a joint service. I was there early to review my part in the service.

Standing there at the back of the sanctuary, what should I see but a current copy of The Upper Room. I had stopped reading The Upper Room when that relationship ended, as it reminded me of my ex. Somewhat surprised at the feeling of seeing a long lost friend, I picked up a copy and turned to Today's reading. It happened to have been contributed by someone whom the editors chose to highlight on the back cover. Curious to know more about that author, I turned that devotional over.

And I came face to face with my ex. He wrote the devotional for April 6, 2011 and was featured on the back cover as well.

Hatred. Pure and simple. Absolute hatred welled up inside of me, as I considered all of the really hurtful things I wanted to say to him in that moment.

So, I removed myself from the sanctuary. The service wasn't set to begin for another 17 minutes. I entered the cry room, and grabbed a couple facial tissues. I reminded myself that I didn't have the luxury to fall apart at the moment. That I was there for the people who would be coming into that sanctuary shortly, that I had a job today, a job to which I have been called. That I would shortly be standing before two congregations and calling them into repentance, and that if I were to do that with honor and integrity, I had some repenting to do myself.

I prayed. I ran through the Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditation very quickly. And through most of the service, my internal mantra was, "Just keep it together, just keep it together, just keep it together." I almost made it. I only cried a little, when the pastor giving the sermon spoke of the essential nature of God--loving, compassionate, forgiving--and realized that while God loves me, has shown overwhelming compassion to me, has forgiven me, I'm still lacking in my ability to show love and compassion to and forgive others.

At the same time, I wondered if I'm essentially and irrevocably fucked up. After more than nine years of extraordinary love and compassion, of walking through hell with me for four years, of being the only person who was there for me when tragedy struck, and ten months of a horribly screwed up "not a romantic" relationship, and four months of after, some part of me still has compassion for him, still loves him, still wants to forgive him, and even absolve him of blame (though this last is entirely due to his having suffered a TBI shortly before the "not romantic" aspect of our relationship began). Some part of me still wants healing and wholeness for him, still believes that healing and wholeness are available to him, through Jesus; that same part of me knows that if it ever happens, I'll never be able to witness it, and I'm okay with that.

Sitting there tonight, reciting Psalm 51, a psalm in which David confesses his sins before God, having slept with Bathsheba and then plotted the murder of her husband when she became pregnant with David's child, and asks God to bless him, that God would create in him a pure heart, that God's Spirit would remain with him, that the joy of God's salvation would be with David, that he would have a willing spirit to sustain him, all I could think about was my ex whose blurb had been published in a devotional that's printed in 39 languages, distributed in over 100 countries, and read by some 3 million people every day, and I thought, "You don't fucking deserve this, you asshole." And I thought, "I wish I could congratulate you." This, of course was promptly followed by the thought, "Just keep it together, just keep it together, just keep it together...."

So, really long story short, I aimed for a Lent free of bitterness and cynicism. I failed, big time, six hours in. I guess there's always tomorrow.

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