As many of readers of Indwelling Spirit may realize by now, I scribble little “Notes to Self” and don’t get back to them right away. They clutter my desk and brief case and bedside table. Sometimes, months later, these notes take some deciphering, and as I get back to this blog after many months of being overwhelmed by other responsibilities, I am evaluating some of my own scrawled notes:
Each of us probably remembers this feeling from a doctor or dentist visit: We have pain. The “spot” is very sensitive. We know that this needs the attention of a professional, perhaps even a specialist, but we brace ourselves against what might be careless or overzealous medical attention. “Please be gentle!” we scream under our breath just before we are touched, poked, probed —or drilled!
When someone tells me about a pain they are having, or their story of a recent doctor visit, I am thinking, “I know exactly how you feel,” because I have had similar experiences where a pain was deep or sharp and I found myself pleading for gentle treatment.
Spiritually, there is an important parallel here. We may be living with a lot of pain, spiritually. It takes awhile for it to build up to the point where we recognize its symptoms, or are ready to talk about it. Yet we are really reluctant to take our inner emotional/spiritual pain to a specialist—to a counselor, confessor, pastor or spiritual director.
Why do we avoid getting spiritual help when we are in pain?
I suspect that often the reason is that we don’t expect we will be treated gently, either by a counselor/pastor or by God. Many people have experienced so much judgmentalism, rejection, and threats of punishment from religious figures —and told they can expect the same from Almighty God!—that they avoid taking their spiritual symptoms to them.
All of us have been poked, probed, drilled, scolded, and pushed away at some point—at a very sensitive point in our lives—when what we really needed was a gentle touch or a hug, not a lecture, scolding, ultimatum or damnation.
Time and time again this has been especially true for LGBT people. We have symptoms of emotional and spiritual distress. We hurt. It has taken a lot of time for many of us to bring this pain to the surface, and to recognize the symptom of our deep discomfort. We’re not sure of ourselves let alone sure of our relationship to God.
But because of either our own experiences or those of friends, we avoid seeking counsel or guidance for our spiritual lives, because we cannot take any more harsh treatment. Some of us just go on living with the pain rather than seeking a specialist that can help clear it up, because of the risk of spiritual mistreatment or harm. The so-called Ex-Gay campaign, for example, has been unmasked as an effort that subjects gay people to immeasurable pain and mistreatment.
Often I try to explain to non-gay church people what the significant pastoral and spiritual issues are for LGBT people. Some of these people are sympathetic enough to recognize the prejudice and rejection that lesbian/gay people especially have experienced. But because they are in the sexual majority, not sexual minority, they do not fully understand or fully feel the pain that we talk about.
Yes, there are many other Christian people out there who are not sympathetic at all. They continue to finger the same few “clobber” passages in the Bible, and point to them with a sharpened index finger, like a doctor thumping on a medical manual at the possible diagnosis. And because they are so certain of their allegiance to God as they understand him, they almost aggressively attack the wounded or the hurting with this “immutable” word of the Lord. An old saying expresses this pretty well: The church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.
God does not approach us that way. If anything, God touches all who are in pain, all who have open wounds, more gently. God’s approach to our pain or suffering is an embrace, not a probe or poke or drill. From the Lutheran rite for Confession and Forgiveness (Summer 2011), “As tender as a parent to child, so gentile is God to us. As high as heaven is above the earth, so vast is God’s love for us. As far as east is from west, so far God removes our sin, renewing our lives in Jesus Christ.”
If we would simply look again at even a handful of the stories in the Gospels about how Jesus approached people in pain, we would clearly see this gentle approach: the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well (who had already been married 5 times), the rich young ruler, Nicodemus, Zaccheus, Thomas the Doubter, Judas Iscariot, the soldiers who crucified him, and the thief on the cross.
To be sure, Jesus often does challenge people to put greater trust and faith in him, or to turn their lives around (“Go, and sin no more”). But his spiritual approach is always gentle. I might even speculate that Jesus had heard of the Hippocratic Oath (5th Century B.C.), to which this classic phrase is often traced: primum non nocere, “first, do no harm.” It certainly calls for reflection for those of us who are spiritual guides, counselors, confessors and pastors, and especially for those who are LGBT people of faith.
I have a definite sense of what God’s gentle touch means. (See my essay, “About Jesus,” for example.) Obviously, a lot of rock-hard conservative clergy and laity wouldn’t agree with me, and they can drill their forefinger into the pages of the Bible to “prove” it. But as I’ve said before, “God’s Word for us is always an invitation, not an ultimatum.” And you can quote me on that.
—Pastor Dan Hooper