Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Betrayals

Recently I was asked what advice I would give to someone training for ordination. I replied that I would tell them that, sooner or later, they would feel betrayed by the Church; and that I told them this not to dissuade them, nor cause them dismay, but so that when it inevitably happened it would not be utterly incomprehensible. My observation is that theological college would not prepare them for this; but the good news is that the experience contains the transformative potential to make them not only a better licensed minister but also (and more importantly) more fully human.

The painful experience of betrayal is universal.

Whether we are betrayed by a lover (infidelity, adultery, divorce, death…)

or by a family-member or friend or neighbour or work colleague or community;

or by our self-sabotaging choices or actions

or even by our own bodies (various ‘disorders’, infertility, cancer, dementia…all can feel like betrayal)

sooner or later we are all betrayed;

and sooner or later we all act (through wilfulness or weakness) in ways that leave another human being feeling betrayed.

You have most likely experienced betrayal in one form or another before, and you will most likely experience it again. And yes, if you commit to the Church (or any other relationship or community or shared purpose) you will know it there too.

This is one significant reason why I find the Bible to be the most relevant library available to us. It is, among other things and perhaps before all else, a record of the universal experience of betrayal.

Abraham and Sarah are betrayed by their union, their bodies, their inability to conceive a child. Together, they betray Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. The son they do eventually have together, Isaac, will be betrayed by his wife, Rebekah, and one of their sons. That son, Jacob, will betray his brother Esau, before himself being betrayed by his uncle Laban. Jacob’s son Joseph will be betrayed by his brothers who sell him into slavery (and then betray their father by claiming that Joseph is dead), by his master (surely Potiphar knew his wife was lying, or he would have had Joseph killed, not imprisoned?), by his fellow-prisoner who forgets Joseph to rot in prison once he has gone free.

And that is just a snap-shot.

There is a great deal of pain and bewilderment in these foundational stories of human beings encountering God. Encountering God intermittently; but encountering God nonetheless. It almost reads as if the experience of betrayal is the necessary condition or circumstances in which we are displaced enough to meet God. (Or, to put it another way, death is the precondition for new life.)

As betrayal is, apparently, inevitable and universal, this is incredibly hopeful.

One of the problems we humans have is the drive to fix problems. Which is great if the problem that needs fixing is that the village has no safe water supply, so let’s build a well. It can be a good thing when the problem is medical, though pushed to the extreme we lose sight of the people at the heart of the matter. But it is not so great when the problem is betrayal, which may not be fixable, certainly not quickly or easily. Rather than rush to fix the problem—through fight or flight, or numbing, or distraction—we would do better to find ourselves in the place where we are.

Feeling betrayed by an entire nation, Elijah runs away. That takes only a day; but God then sends him on a journey of forty days and forty nights—a highly symbolic number in the Bible, and far longer than needed for the geographical distance he travels. There, on a mountain, he experiences rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before a sound of sheer silence in which, at last, God was present. This story is best read psychologically (which is not to dismiss its historicity, but perhaps to suggest that God speaks to Elijah’s inner turmoil through corresponding outer energies). Deep emotions are acknowledged, permitted, affirmed; and in time there is stillness and renewal of vision. There is also fresh insight into the experience of other people—for we are not alone—and, with that, deepened authority to invest in the lives of others.

When we find ourselves feeling betrayed, our family history (for that is what the Bible is) leads us to conclude that God might turn up, unexpectedly, in the most unlikely of moments—even if this is not to our timescale. And that our present circumstances do not terminate God’s intention to bless us and to bless others through us. Indeed, they may well open-up whole new seams of blessing.


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