From Accuser to Advocate, I am a Work in Progress

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Being born into an American household of predominantly Irish lineage, it was kind of taken for granted that we could explain away our worst family altercations by placing blame on the old Irish temper. It was just accepted as fact that we were all a bit fiery on the inside. When our passions were stoked, usually when we perceived we or someone we cared for had been wronged, we quickly entered into fight mode. Mostly our exchanges were of an intense verbal nature and not just a few reached a decibel which could be heard by neighbors near and far. I clearly recall being on the way home from a bike ride at age 6 or 7 and turning onto my street at an intersection that was about half a block from my house. I could very clearly hear my father yelling at my brothers. I learned pretty quickly it was better to take a detour at times such as this rather than enter the fray and risk becoming a secondary target of the rage.

Observing these outbursts and the subsequent fallout became a “normal” part of my childhood. It’s what we did. One late afternoon on a Saturday towards the end of summer my parents were outside doing yard work. I was suffering miserably from boredom, yet my creative brain had just dreamed up a solution to put an end to the day’s monotony. I was relieved and excited, but there was one caveat; my solution required a trip to the store for some craft supplies. I asked very nicely if one of them would take a break and run me to the store to pick up said items. “No”, they both answered separately. I proceeded to beg passionately, “Pretty pleeeaaassseee?” I pleaded and made my best case and even tried to barter taking on extra chores around the house if.only.someone.would.take.me. “No!” This terse, resounding and irritable response from the two of them, in infuriating unison, activated the ferocity within. Without any warning, while screaming and yelling at the injustice of it all, I threw a punch through what I believed to be a plexiglass door. Turned out it was glass. They took me for a ride that afternoon, not to the store, but to the clinic to get stitches in my wrist. Sitting up on the doctor’s examining table, at the tender age of ten years old, I remember the doctor speaking in hushed tones to my parents of concerns about my “anger problem”. That may have been the first time I realized that what was “normal” in my house might not be considered normal to outsiders. I felt ashamed.

During my forty years of life’s journey since that doctor quietly named my “anger problem” there have been plenty experiences when the same sense of shame returned. These sudden and powerful bursts of my temper left me exhausted, embarrassed and in need of making amends to those who were witnesses or recipients of their fury. I wished I could just ditch this angry part of me alongside the road and keep traveling, like the inedible parts of a piece of fruit I tossed out the window of my car on road trips. But it hasn’t been that easy and so far my attempts at extricating this fiery temper from my being have been entirely unsuccessful.

Metamorphosis may be defined as the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. As I sense an exodus from what I hope will prove the most difficult years of parenting my soon to be post-adolescent daughter, it seems my temper has undergone a sort of evolution. No longer is it as externally observable, but it has now gone underground and tends to wage a fierce battle in my mind and my heart when an ideal or belief I hold sacred is violated. Pandemic living, in all of its previously unimaginable facets has presented a whole slew of weekly, if not daily violations. I find them all over, the people who violate my sacred ideals and beliefs. They are found in the news every day—members of a political party who seem to me cruel and heartless, at times even vicious in their response to my brothers and sisters who have suffered for so long. They are found writing emails that populate my inbox at work—complaining about being “persecuted” because they are unable to experience church in the same way they were used to in pre-pandemic days. These people are found in my American Catholic community—excitedly sharing vile and disparaging articles on social media about other members of the Body of Christ, degrading us to a mere reflection of the country’s divided political system. They are members of my brother’s Arizona town—confronting him at a local home improvement store to tell him he is a “fu**ing idiot” for wearing a mask (he works in the medical field). They are my neighbors who share the beloved trail where I go to find relief from this crazy world—running four people across, not moving as I approach, forcing me off trail to avoid an accident that would have injured all of us.

These perceived transgressions of humanity, and countless others, they have consumed me for weeks. They have battled for my emotional energy and they have fueled my anger and frustration on the daily. Coupled with six weeks of working 70-hour weeks as part of the effort to reopen the parish where I serve, rendering me unable to find time for self-care and grounding prayer, my temper has been gaining strength within my being. There is something quite powerful when one feels justified and righteous in one’s rage. Every new infraction on another’s part only served to widen the divide of US vs. THEM within me. Each perceived violation thoroughly convinced me mine was the right team and my judgments all correct.

That day I was forced off the trail by the runners, it was as if my loving Creator intervened to push me off my path of self-destruction. It had been my first day off from work in weeks and I desperately needed to find some balance and reground in goodness. Reciting the Rosary while riding along on my bike, suddenly forced off the trail to avoid an accident, the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….” were interrupted by the most heinous slur of expletives coming not from an outsider, but from within my brain. I stopped them from leaving my mouth, but regardless, they provided me with a wake-up call. They were direct evidence of the ugliness consuming me and claiming me as its own. I was becoming the very divisive, unloving, cruel, heartless embodiment of what I exactly despised in others.

Hurt people hurt people”, my friend Carlos reminded me in an email. His words coupled with recent experiences served to bring forth the acute awareness of a need for a different way. It had been way too easy to get carried away in the fight of US vs. THEM and I needed to reverse my course. The past few weeks I’ve been about getting back to the basics of prayer, self-care, filling my mind and soul with lovely things and the voices of wisdom speakers. Surprisingly it is almost as easy to seek out and notice the lovely, as it is to seek out and notice the ugly, but it isn’t always so self-satisfying. Rather, loveliness and wisdom serve to bring me to my knees. They humble me and remind me of my very low and insignificant place in this world, how much I am a work in progress with a far way to go, but paradoxically they also serve to affirm my belovedness and great significance in the eyes of Love.

One recent morning while attending daily Mass, these words hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been asking of God, what is it you want me to do? How am I supposed to be in this world? How do I contend with all that breaks my heart and my spirit? Sometimes God has to shout to get my attention. It was the last sentence in the First Reading of the day:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

MICAH 6:8

Wow! What a clear and simple formula, right? It might be if my fiery temper and humongous ego didn’t try to trip me up every.single.step.of.the.way.

In the aftermath of the death of the great Civil Rights Activist, John Lewis, the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett rebroadcast an extraordinary conversation with John recorded in 2013. Listening to John describe his life’s journey is to hear a man who did the work to become an embodiment of Micah 6:8. As he stated, it isn’t something natural to become this way. He says we have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace can a human being proclaim,

“In the religious sense, in a moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the Divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the Divine in your fellow human being…you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone…You beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”

John Lewis

I find his witness absolutely stunning. It is breathtaking. It is the opposite of everything I mostly see happening in the world around us right now. It is contrary to everything my arrogance and my thirst for revenge demand, even of those who have only slightly offended me. I stand in wonder and awe at Love so present within this human soul. It is the same Love incarnate found in Christ, even in the face of His unjust crucifixion. It is radical, counter-cultural, blessing those who persecute, standing with the poor and the outcast, never hating the oppressor, only the sin. It is forgiveness freely offered in the face of the unforgivable.

In the book, “Becoming Mister Rogers”, author Shea Tuttle describes a professor of theology who taught Fred Rogers during his studies to become an ordained minister. Dr. Orr had a unique way of describing evil that resonated with Fred. He referred to it as “The Accuser”. As Fred recalled, “Evil will do anything to make you feel as bad as you possibly can about yourself because if you feel the worst about who you are, you will undoubtedly look with evil eyes on your neighbor and you will get to believe the worst about him or her…Accuse yourself. Accuse your neighbor. Get your neighbor to accuse somebody else, and the evil spreads and thrives.”

Dr. Orr taught that Jesus stands in complete contrast as “The Advocate”. In an interview Fred Rogers said of this, “Jesus would want us to see the best of who we are, so we would have that behind our eyes as we looked at our neighbor, and we would see the best in him or her. You can be an accuser or an advocate. Evil would have you be an accuser in this life. Jesus would have you be an advocate for your neighbor.”

With all of the issues that have arisen during these early months of the pandemic, growing in prominence in the exchanges from both sides of every issue is the reality of “cancel culture”. Cancel culture not only eggs us on to dismiss the ideas we find appalling, but it pushes us further to completely nullify the human dignity of the persons whose ideas we love to hate. This is exactly what I now see the Accuser has been tempting me to do, boldly, but falsely asserting to me that to do so is a righteous endeavor. In stark contradiction, the Advocate calls me forth to the work of loving, accepting and honoring the spark of the Divine in every human being. He dares me to demonstrate the most rebellious act possible when confronted with evil words and actions—forgiveness.

Jesus was serious when He said, “Pray for your enemies, bless those who persecute you.” And in opposition to what I imagine as being fair, He offered no provisions to disregard this commandment. He didn’t say, if your enemy suffocates and kills an innocent man of color, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy complains about how what you did to help them return to church isn’t good enough, even after you’ve poured your heart and soul and countless hours to make it happen, you can hate him. He didn’t say, if your enemy says and propagates falsities about their own brothers and sisters in faith, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy verbally attacks your brother for taking steps to keep others safe, you can hate him. He didn’t say if your enemy puts your physical safety in danger by not making space for you on the trail, you can hate him. This commandment is hard to embrace and even more difficult to live. Yet it isn’t impossible to follow when we cooperate with Divine Grace and let it transform us, just as John Lewis did, just as Fred Rogers did, just as countless humans who have gone before us did and in doing so have forged the path for us to follow.

After weeks of angst and grappling with all that has been transpiring in my inner life, last Saturday I had the privilege of witnessing a young man from the parish where I work receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is our belief that through this sacrament there is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which we are given the increased ability to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives and to witness Christ in every situation. Father was wearing vestments of bright red and gold and I was struck by the beauty of what they represented—the Holy Fire we would be calling upon to descend on us and energize us to love more fully. At the moment he was tracing the sign of the cross and anointing the forehead of the Confirmandi with the oil of Chrism, deep within me I felt a nudge to offer up to God the fiery temper that is mine. I imagined an all-encompassing Holy Fire descending from above co-mingling with my unholy fire ascending from below, its flames consuming the hatred with which my temper has burned as of late.

A peace was restored to me that day that has graciously remained. Its presence reveals to me the inner reformation required to become an Advocate cannot be accomplished through my efforts alone, but requires me to traverse the long path as a student in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. Only by cooperating with Divine Grace will I become a force of good in the face of evil and be able to offer forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable. From Accuser to Advocate, I am a work in progress; thankfully God never gives up on anyone.

John, Fred, all you saints of God who have walked this way before us, pray for us.

Becoming More Than

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

After investing a whole lot of time listening to the testimonies in the Impeachment Hearings for many days last week, this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in what might just be the antithesis of all that is happening between political parties in our nation’s capitol and between citizens of goodwill all around our country. I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, a poignant documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the long running children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Spending an hour and a half basking in the goodness of this man who was a kind of empathetic, imaginary friend in my early childhood, was nothing short of rejuvenating. Exposing myself to the light and love emanating from his soul was like coming home to a warm, cozy fire after being vulnerable to the elements on a raw and stinging cold winter’s day. Fred’s way in this world was the perfect antidote to counter the toxic affects of hatred, mistrust and disdain for truth.

Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed that it was far more important to live what you believe rather than just talk about it. I find this to be a refreshing stance in our world where the noise of words can sometimes become unbearable. In a sea of children’s programming, he stood out as counter cultural, at times even espousing the use of silence on his television program. For example, on one episode he set a timer for a minute and kept quiet so that he could teach children just how long this increment of time is. Though he filmed decades before our daily lives became inseparably intertwined with reliance upon advanced technology, the wisdom he shared is as needed now as it ever was. Silence, stillness, reflection, contemplation; these are all powerful tools in a well balanced life as we stand at the threshold of the new decade just ahead.

About fifteen minutes into the documentary, I hit pause and ran to grab my journal and favorite pen. Woven into the narrative were some nuggets of profound, yet simple truth I wanted to record for more thorough digestion at a later time. They were spoken by Fred in various clips of interviews throughout the years and collectively are a treasure trove of inspiration for such a time as this. The one that struck me most deeply was this:

I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are-I think that’s the greatest evil.”

Fred Rogers

The greatest evil? I’ve been kicking that around in my head all day, applying Fred’s assessment to various events in our world that trigger my fiery Irish temper. And yep, at the end of the day it most definitely resonates with me. It seems that at the core of every crime against humanity this type of attitude exists. When persons are treated as less than, when human beings are denied the sense of dignity and good endowed to them by their Creator, this indeed is evil. And sadly we are witnesses to it every day, even hearing it from what once might have been considered unlikely sources of such harmful and nefarious conduct. We see it executed through lies spoken, through accusations tweeted, through callous generalizations propagated on social media, all serving to dehumanize the “other”. Slowly but surely there seems to an erosion of civility happening. It is stripping the sense of sacred presence found in humanity and devaluing individuals and groups of persons through the use of one word descriptors such as “animals”, “enemies”, “invaders”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”.

In complete contrast, Fred Rogers lived his life lifting up the marginalized, reverencing those who were seen as less than, putting a spotlight on their inherent beauty and uniqueness. He took on the controversial issues of the times in which he lived and over and over raised up persons who were commonly misunderstood, discriminated against and treated unfairly. He opened our eyes to see that these incredible human beings are more than anyone ever let them be. Mister Rogers imparted to all people a sense of dignity and respect, even to those who would go on to create parodies of his show. Though he may not have appreciated their humor, he never disparaged them as persons.

This perhaps is the aspect of Fred Roger’s life that challenges me the most. He personified Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel of Matthew: But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What Jesus inherently knew and was addressing with this discourse is that there exists a great temptation to imitate the very behaviors I detest in my enemy, under the auspices of being righteous. When I give into this temptation, I myself become less than who I am, not because of another’s treatment of me, but by the way I choose to stoop below the dignity of who I was created to become. When instead I successfully resist devaluing my enemies through the use of one word descriptors, and choose to act with intentional love towards them, the cycle of hatred can be reversed.

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

Fred Rogers

As time marches forward toward the Winter Solstice and shorter days grow darker, I invite you to join me as I attempt to take up a virtual residence in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. It is a place where our daily words and actions can become a source of rejuvenation for others. It is a neighborhood where the light and love emanating from our souls can serve to melt misunderstandings found in the space between us. It is an environment where all people can be recognized as inherently good and treated with a sense of dignity and respect, even when they are considered to be enemies. There in Mister Roger’s neighborhood we can collectively become more than; together we can become repairers of a broken world.

Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?