Friday, July 12, 2013

Shock? and Awe!

        Many years ago, I took part in a CPE program.  "CPE" stands for "Clinical Pastoral Education", and is generally required now for  people who are interested in entering into the ordained ministry in many Christian and Jewish denominations.  As the title implies, those who are part of the program are placed in a clinical setting (it could be a hospital, a prison, a retirement facility, etc.) and use the encounters in their day-to-day work as grist for reflection with a supervisor and in a small group.  Another model of CPE is known as "parish-based" -- that is, the participants use their current work-place as the "clinic" from which they draw the vignettes for reflection.  My program was such a "parish-based" program.
        One of my fellow participants was already pastoring a couple of small churches in southern Virginia, and was going through CPE to equip him for future placements.  One week, he came to the group meeting very visibly shaken up.  This was pretty out of character, since he was usually very confident, almost to the point of being cocky.  As our group conversation progressed, it emerged that he had been wrongly accused of some misbehavior, but that the word had travelled around quickly through his various church-related circles.  His reputation was tarnished and his confidence shot.  As we in the group discussed this with him, he said something to the effect, "I just can't believe that this is happening in a church!  We're supposed to be about loving each other, and caring for each other!"  His worldview came crashing in all about him; he wasn't sure how to, or if he could, go on.
        The rules on which he relied no longer reflected reality.  Certainty, confidence -- things of the past.
        My colleague's experience -- and dismay -- is pretty common.  I certainly want certainty, especially moral certainty.  I find that predictability helps me negotiate all of the stuff I need to manage every day.  And most of us also want fairness, and what is predictable is usually predicated on some notion of fairness.  And many of us often "find" an external source, or ground, for that fairness or predictability we desire.  And, of course, our religious traditions have tried to "help" us with that:  "Do good (as God would want), and you'll prosper!"  But, as the biblical book of Job (as well as other writers) points out, it doesn't always work that way!  Job, the just man, suffers immeasurably for no apparent reason.  That story line can't have appeared out of thin air; it reflects our common frustration with the lack of "fairness".  In other words, the world as we wish it, is "out of order."  The resolution (whether satisfying or not) to Job's situation is that he'd never fully understand; there are things far beyond his, or anyone's, ability to comprehend.  And Job had to sit back in awe.
        I've been struck recently, in my reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, of this tension:  there seems to be a predictability to the moral universe (or there are those who think it should be), but it doesn't always play out.   And often the way of dealing with that dilemma is to place the resolution in the far distant future.  In other words, our notions of fairness are not necessarily out-of-whack, it's our time frame!  The same tension/solution I see in science as well.  What physicists were certain was the case -- in terms of Newtonian physics, for example -- has become thrown into question by quantum physics and chaos theory.  Yet, as I read the scientific materials, the hope is still held out that, somewhere in the future, we'll understand it all.
        I don't know.  I want certainty; we want certainty . . . but there doesn't seem to be certainty.  I want the world to work logically and justly, as I imagine most of us do . . . but it doesn't seem to work that way.  It's a shock to my system that myway of perceiving the world, given my tools, and my understanding, doesn't work the way I want it to.   And pushing things off to some future afterlife isn't very satisfying for dealing with real-world problems right now
        Awe, I suppose, is what's left.  A lesson in humility in the face of that which is larger than me.  But that shouldn't keep me from seeking to create some order out of the chaos -- social, legal, cultural, ethical, political -- in which I find myself.  Of that I am certain.

Chaplain Gary 

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