• No letter the past two weeks because I've been on a boat.  Jie got cheap tickets for a 7 day cruise in the Caribbean, the first time either of us had ever been on a cruise.  We had stops in Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Cayman Islands.  I didn't want to go initially, but it was a good experience, and Jie made good plans...but don't tell her I said so.  She will use that against me in future arguments. 
  • Lot's of reading while on vacation: Sarah Healy's novel, Can I Get an Amen? about religion, being single, clergy, divorce, family dysfunction, etc.  It was a good read.  Also James Michener's Caribbean, as I always love reading one of his epic novels when he is writing about a place I am visiting. Also John Truby's book on writing a novel The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, a very helpful guide in thinking through one's novel before writing it.  I had time to work on my novel while on the ship. But I'll probably not have much time until after I retire to get back to it. I enjoyed Cara Wall's The Dearly Beloved, a novel about two clergymen who are forced to share a pulpit in New York City.  The novel gives great backstories about both men...as well as their two fascinating wives.   I started the prize-winning novel, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a very creative story that involves multiple characters...and trees.  I also was intrigued by the movie I saw on the airplane, The Peanut Butter Falcon.  It is the story of Zak, a man with Downs Syndrome, who runs away from the institution where he is being kept.  He encounters a guy named Tyler, a young man who has hit bottom in his own life and needs a big change.  Both men flee together but get tangled up with Eleanor, a volunteer at the institution who is trying to bring Zak back. It has comedy, pathos, and a solid storyline.  Recommended.
  • Mindy is in a play at the Station Theater:  The Moors.  The play runs through February 1.  Click here for information.  It's a dark comedy/tragedy that left me wanting to sit down and talk it over with others who saw it.

January  19, 2020
The Pope Slaps a Troublemaker...Hmm...
It hasn't gotten much press in this country, but I was stunned a couple weeks ago at a video clip showing Pope Francis slapping a woman.  If you would have asked me to name a famous person who would be caught on video slapping a woman, the last person to come to my mind would have been the gentle, compassionate, thoughtful Pope Francis.  
And yet, he did it!  It is not only on record, but he apologized the next day by saying, "So many times we lose patience, even me.  And I apologize for yesterday's bad example."
Here's how it happened:  a large and enthusiastic crowd had gathered outdoors to greet the pope.  And being a pope of the people, he was shaking hands and talking with as many as he possibly could.  As he was getting ready to leave, a woman suddenly grabbed his wrist and jerked him back into the crowd. This caused the 83-year old pontiff to lose his balance, and you can see a quick look of panic on his face.  The woman wouldn't let go, but keep gripping him.  That's when he gave her a quick slap on the hand, wrenched himself free, and walked off with a surly look on his face. 
Francis had similar problem two years ago when an enthusiastic well-wisher grabbed his arm and toppled him onto a man in a wheelchair.  No one was hurt, but stingy Vatican officials doubled down on their criticism of the pope for spending so much time with "the people."
At first, I was crushed when I saw "the slap."  Francis is one of my heroes.  And I don't have all that many heroes.  Say it ain't factual, Francis!  But there is it: the Pope slapping a woman.  Jeez...how would it feel if you were the one person on the entire face of the earth who got slapped by the pope? 
Since I haven't been able to get that picture out of my mind, it has set me to thinking...and toying with some ideas...and bit by bit the Pope is regaining his hero status with me.
My mother taught me not to slap anyone.  Actually, she didn't say I couldn't slap anyone, she just said I couldn't slap anyone smaller or weaker than me.  She also said I couldn't slap girls or women or people who wore glasses.  Other than that, she didn't mind if I slapped someone.  Of course, the only people left to slap were guys bigger than me, with perfect eyesight, who could pound me into the ground.  So, I never really saw the value in slapping.
When I had to cope with small trouble-makers (mostly my three younger brothers), the only avenue open to me was to use my mouth:  not for biting...my mom wouldn't let me do that either...but with words.  At an early age I poured myself into speaking and writing.  It was the only way for me to make a difference with people who mistreated others, needed to be taught a lesson, or simply annoyed me.  All those pent up frustrations vaulted me into the kind of speaker and writer who is now effectively able to annoy others.
I never even tried to spank my kids when they were little, afraid my mother would find out that I had hit someone smaller.  
But my mom didn't control the world.  I grew up in a culture where physical assault was not only a staple of discipline, but it was glorified.  My dad took the belt to me several times...and boasted about it afterward to people. It was what he was taught. Teachers in my grade school had wooden paddles designed to leave a mark when they whacked students.  Church members and relatives bragged about blistering and humiliating and even stabbing their kids.  And indeed they did do that:  I saw it happen.  And so I determined that I would become even more skilled with words. I never wanted my powers to even remotely involve physical abuse.  
I began to rethink my self-righteousness, however, when my daughters were in grade school:  mostly because I read a book about the psychology of shame.  I realized that as a parent I had replaced simple swats on the butt with parental shaming.  My daughters responded very well to the fear of being shamed...of disappointing me.  Shaming was much more effective than physical punishment, at least for Mindy and Alison.  But as they got older, and we had conversations about how I had disciplined them, none of us are certain that I chose the best way.  A slap might have simply taught them to avoid bad behavior, period.  But did shaming leave lingering and haunting suspicions that they might not  be inadequate as human beings?  To suppose that a slap is the start of a slippery slope that eventually leads to brawling and violence and militarism...well, such logic is shameful.
My life-long aversion to slapping not only influenced me as a parent, but it has also affected me as a pastor.  Of course, I've never thought about slapping a parishioner.  But even more than that, I've also held back on what I've said or written through the years.  Even if I seem more open and courageous (or careless?) than many other pastors, I'm not.  I've always been afraid that my words will be too much...that they will knock someone over.  And so, despite the ill-considered utterances I've made through the years...and some over-the-top paragraphs I've written, I am fundamentally a chicken:  dishonest in my writing and preaching.  I hold back.  I don't say much of what I honestly think, convinced that it would be an abuse of my power as a pastor to give a completely honest retort to some people's behavior.  
Consequently, I've let lots of church people get by with lots of bad behavior over the years, remaining stupefied and silent.  Should I have slapped a few now and then?  Or at least spoken up?
Well...now that I'm getting old and have arthritis in my hands...I'll not be following the Pope's "bad" example of slapping folks, even though the rest of the world might be better off if I did so some selective slapping.  Of course, if the slapping did start, I'm sure I have a few deserving swats coming my way!)  
The woman who grabbed the pope pulled him off balance.  And he needed to do something to free himself and keep his equilibrium.  Since she was physically assaulting him, a slap was probably his only reasonable remedy in that moment.  
It makes me think of all the times that I have been pulled off balance by words, comments, gossip, letters, and emails from parishioners, excreting their own darkness through those words...grievances that actually had little or nothing to do with me.  But they were aimed at me, and consequently I fell into distraction, discouragement, and dysfunction.  I think of all the times I have fallen because some ill-considered word... slamming into me at just the wrong moment.  But if one is a conscientious pastor, disciplined to NOT use power for one's personal gain or even protection, all that seems left to do is duck and cry in secret.
Jesus said that if someone hits you on the right cheek, stick your left cheek in their face.  His creative use of non-violent resistance was an effective source of power in a world of psychological bullies. Without being violent himself, he defied intimidators by humorously daring them to take the next step...which of course they wouldn't do. 
Pope Francis isn't a bully, and he didn't slap the woman in the face.  He simply used the most sensible and efficient way available to him to keep her from pulling him down.  
In the end, my problem has been two-fold.  I never found a quick and sensible way to keep people from knocking my spirit down.  And I never had the courage to stick my other cheek in a verbal bully's face, daring them to expose their real motives.  But I'm still figuring it out.  In the altered words of the old spiritual:  

If you can't preach like Peter,
If you can't pray like Paul,
If you can't slap like Francis
Don't ever feel discouraged
For Jesus is your friend
There is a Balm in Gilead,
And the Lord will surely lend you
A power that ain't too bad.

Click here to see the video of the papal slap

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I used to write it when I first woke up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation. Now I write it on a Saturday, revise it, and send all of them out by email.This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than pontificating.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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