Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hedgehogs and Reconciliation

I have a special relationship with African Pygmy Hedgehogs.  We have a lot in common.  I used to be one.
When frightened, hedgehogs curl up into balls and their quills stand on end in a criss-cross pattern, protecting them from their enemies.  They also make a rather interesting hissing/grunting noise.

I used be an African Pygmy Hedgehog.  There was much that frightened me, and I refused to be vulnerable.  I would withdraw, pull away, and anyone who got too close would be grievously injured in my attempts at self-protection.  No one whom I hurt deserved it.  I cannot begin to tally the count.  Most are those whose names and faces I will never be able to recall.

But, things changed, as they so often do.  As one who continually seeks health, I sought healing.  As one who wants to do things well, I learned how to open up, how to choose appropriate vulnerability, how to love others and be loved by them in return.  It was a slow, excruciating, challenging process.  I know that it is an ongoing process, for who among us is ever finished growing?  Who among us does not have room for improvement?  Who among us is always filled with grace, always filled with patience, always kind, always generous, truly without fault?

So, there I was, hanging with Quill, an African Pygmy Hedgehog, who has not yet had the level of human contact will leave him soft, open, and vulnerable to new human interactions.  And I scooped him up in the palm of my hand, not the least worried about his barbs--for I knew that he could not truly harm me--and settled down with him.  Over the course of an hour, he began to settle, unfurl, and look around.  He began to show his face, to sniff out new possibilities, and to engage the world around him.  A little patience, stillness, quietude, and Quill began to relax and show his beautiful face to the world.

In many ways, I used to be like Quill.  And in some ways, I still am.  Occasionally, I panic.  Occasionally, my first instinct is to retreat, withdraw, throw up my defenses, and wound anyone who comes too near.  Oh, yes.  In some ways, I am very much like Quill.  Unlike Quill, however, I am truly dangerous.

But that, as I indicated, is my first instinct.  And it's one I've come to recognize and one I actively work to overcome.  It may be the case that it is always my first instinct.  I have come to realize, however, that simply having an initial emotional reaction does not mean I have behave in accordance with that reaction.  I can choose my response.  And I can choose to be proactive, rather than reactive, when addressing perceived threats.  I do not have to stay in and perpetuate brokenness.  And that is an incredibly freeing reality.

This past week, I served as staff for an urban mission project.  The co-directors are clear that although we do missional work in the urban environment, the purpose of the project is to be a discipleship program to young people.  This was some pretty awesomely exciting stuff.  I had a blast.  I loved nearly all of it.  It was extraordinary.  And though I have many stories I could write about this experience, there is one I want to share today.

Living in community with 100+ other people is hard.  Do so for a short time and the shiny veneer of Christian love and kindness nearly always wears off.  For many people, it wears off quickly.  This was a one week urban experience.  And before 3 days were up, there was bickering, infighting, and hateful, hurtful words spoken.  In a group this large, in a space that small, with exhaustion at a peak, it comes as no surprise that our deepest natures come to the surface and our egos and need for self-aggrandizement lead to make some pretty crappy choices.

Some people, however, choose to strip away this veneer.  Some choose vulnerability intentionally.  Some, in modelling biblical confession as a first step toward reconciliation proactively choose to say, "Here is the deepest, darkest, most shameful part of my story.  Here is the part of me that I deny to everyone, including myself."

In a time of corporate confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, one of my colleagues chose to do just this.  He stood before a group of 130 people and confessed, "I hate the homosexual community."

The strangest thing happened at this point.  I began to see, quite literally, everything in the room in black and white, and my head was filled with white noise.  I stared at this man in open-mouthed wonder, or more likely horror, watching his lips move, and completely unable to hear anything else he was saying.

Now, living in the United States, it comes as no surprise that this kind of sentiment exists.  We see it, hear it, fight against it even, on a daily basis.  This is especially true in the Midwest.  Generally when I hear these sentiments expressed, I experience anger at the injustice and ignorance of the comments being spoken and the efforts being made to deny basic civil rights to an entire group of people.  I do not, however, take their words personally.  I choose to write them off as idiots, or worse, and by and large simply never have contact with them again.

But this man, on that day, confessing his hatred for the gay community before his Christian community had 2 unusual effects.  In addition to the anger I experienced (intensified proportionately by the depth of my love for this new friend), I felt completely and utterly invalidated; and I felt my heart breaking with compassion for him.

This man hates my Jesus.  And my initial response was to pull away.  "I hate you!" I thought.  "I hate you.  You disgust me.  You deserve to burn in hell," was all I could think, as I sat there and cried.

I am who I am today because of my relationship with a short, fat, gay man.  The vibrant, lovely, loving, wonderful woman who writes this blog is vibrant, lovely, loving, and wonderful because of a gay man.  The healing of my heart and the sanding away of some of my rougher edges happened because the love of God was made manifest in my life through a gay man.  I was wholly and perfectly loved with a holy and perfect love; and it was the love of a gay man.

And as I heard this man say, "I hate the homosexual community," I felt invalidated.  It was as though he were saying to me, "Who you are, the healing you've received, the love you've experienced is less than, unacceptable, invalid because it came through the arms of a gay man."

Now, I know that no one can invalidate me.  My worth, my value is found in God alone.  I know this.  I do not, however, always feel this.  And it felt like an utter betrayal of our new friendship that this man should hate the very person who loved me into wholeness.  How could anyone who knows this bright, vibrant, extraordinary ray of sunshine not absolutely LOVE the homosexual community?

(Yes, I recognize the significant pride in that question).

And so, I pulled away.  I avoided this man for the remainder of the night, and I struggled to hear anything more he had to say during this time of public confession.  I sat there, hurting, crying, devastated by this hatred that I had not foreseen, and flinched every time he spoke.

I knew, however, that what he confessed was not about me.  I knew that my reaction was entirely about me.  His words had hurt me, yes.  But this war was being waged in my heart:  hatred versus love and compassion.  I knew that the right choice, the only choice for one seeking healing and wholeness, was reconciliation.

My best friend who was also present this week, knowing my story and understanding the trigger for my flood of tears, checked on me later that evening.  She asked how I was doing and how I was planning to respond.  She asked about forgiveness.

"There was no personal injury, no intent to harm, so I do not see how forgiveness applies," I responded.

"If there was no injury," she asked, looking for all the world as though she thought I was crazy given the incredible emotional distress this had caused me, "then why would you need to reconcile?"

"Well, reconciliation is about restoring right relationship.  Relationships can be broken even without actual injury, particularly when an intent to harm is not present.  Thus reconciliation must happen, but forgiveness is moot."

She allowed me to sit on it and head to bed.

The next morning, I set up breakfast and had nearly finished when she and this man arrived in the cafeteria.  They both got their breakfast at the same time and headed to the staff table.  There was a spot available at the far end of the table and a spot available directly across from me.  My best friend, who was two steps ahead, sat at the far end of the table.  And this man, sat directly across from me.

I struggled.  I did not speak a word to this man through the whole of breakfast.  Every time I looked at him, I looked at him with loathing.  When he asked me to pass something to him, I slid it his way, never saying a word and doing everything I could to avoid interaction.

I knew things would never be right if I didn't address the hurt from the night before.  I wanted to do it well, but I was so full of pain, anger, and hate that I feared I would hurt him in the process.  I knew we had a full day ahead of us, so as we headed out of the cafeteria, I said, "Can we talk tonight?  It's really important."

"Sure," he responded.

Shortly thereafter, my friend found me.  She asked again, "So, I just wanted to follow up, and see if, now you're rested, you have any additional thoughts.  I mean, I'm still thinking there's a place for forgiveness here.  What are your thoughts?  Has anything changed since last night?"

"Not really," I told her.

We headed to devotions, broke the group up into teams, received our instructions and headed out to our job sites.  As I pulled up to my job site 25 minutes later, I was overtaken by the Spirit of God.  Suddenly, reconciling was not about me.  Yes, I wanted to share with him how I had been hurt.  Yes, I wanted him to understand where I was coming from.  But I wanted God to fix him.  I wanted God to soften his heart.  I wanted God to make him someone who loves the gay community.

I wanted to say, "This is how you hurt me.  Hope we can be friends.  Have a nice life."

Pulling up to that job site, I was moved in my soul, and I prayed:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to be used by God to bring transformation to the heart of this man; from one who hates the gay community to one who not only loves the gay community, but one who is capable of receiving the love those in the gay community have to offer.

And forgiveness overflowed my heart.  I was at peace.  I felt light and happy and free.

That night, as my friend and I sat together in a quiet room, I began our conversation, "I appreciate you.  I deeply cherish you.  I want good things for you.  And I was profoundly wounded last night by what you had to say.  I understand your intent, and my heart is deeply grieved for you.  And I must confess, last night, in that moment, after you said, 'I hate the gay community,' I could see your lips moving, but could not hear what you were saying.  I want to know what followed, because I know the intent of confession is to be healed, but I could not move past my own pain in that moment.  I felt invalidated.  Here is my story, and I hope you'll share yours."

He listened.  Carefully.  Never interrupting.  Never challenging.  And when I had finished, he began to speak.  And the first thing he said was, "So....  Actually, I just want to make sure, have you finished?  If you have more to say, I want to hear it."  And when I affirmed that I had spoken my piece, he shared himself with me.  And my heart broke for him and for his brokenness.

It was a beautiful moment.  A picture of the reconciling work God is doing in the world.  And I smiled.

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