I once heard a story about a pastor who had to deal with a small explosion of the parishioner kind.
While meeting with the music ministry group, the pastor asked the music leader to do a particular piece of music in the service. For whatever reason, the music leader had what can only be described as a tantrum—HATED that piece of music! This response shocked and upset the other musicians at the meeting.
The pastor had to tell the music leader afterward that they needed to just apologize to the other musicians and do as he had asked about the music. But no apology was forthcoming, and the pastor received the advice of extreme humilty from a colleague: yes, that person gets upset for no reason– YOU be the big person to apologize even though you weren’t the one to do wrong, and they will settle down and everything will be all right.
The pastor had some doubts about this, but he wanted to be a humble person before God. So he apologized to the music leader.
Did this story end happily? Alas, no. The music leader made a classic passive-aggressive response: had the group perform the piece the pastor asked for, but did not rehearse them at it beforehand and did a terrible, terrible job. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein children’s poem about doing the dishes in which “…if you drop them on the floor/maybe they won’t let you dry the dishes any more!”
As is often noted, the church is a spiritual hospital in which there are many people who are sick, body and soul. Parishes are full of people who have personality disorders, addictions and just plain stubborn, self-centered attitudes that cause chaos all around them. In fact, it can be even worse than that. As Scott Peck notes in his book People of the Lie , downright evil and psychopathic people are attracted to the church precisely because church people are inclined to want to believe the best of others. Our Christian faith teaches us not to judge others, and to forgive. That is one of the ways predators make their way into the church community.
In the Orthodox church we have a long tradition of monastic teaching about humility; how often we read stories where some spiritual abba says to his proteges something to the effect of Yes, I see that you are hurt by your brother’s behaviour; think instead of your own sins. This radical humility sometimes even takes the form of advice to the monk to be the one to beg forgiveness even when the other brother was in fact the one who wronged the first monk.
In the monastery, these things are under the supervision of the abbot, and the monks he advises are generally co-equal brothers with each other. But in the parish where we have children and other vulnerable people, the shepherds are particularly entrusted with the guardianship of the flock by the chief shepherd. If we remember the metaphor of the spiritual hospital, and Scott Peck’s observation about evil people who seek out the church (and even end up in prominent positions there!), we have to admit that sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. The faithful shepherds cannot allow this, however much they want to teach humility and a forgiving spirit to all their members and indeed to practice it themselves; there is a power differential between many of the members that cannot be ignored.
When wolves in sheep’s clothing, or even just sick and maddened sheep are in the parish doing harm to others, it is not the time to teach lessons of humility to those who are already ‘humble’ in the original sense, people without power like children.
The pastor in the story remarked ruefully after the incident that he had ‘hugged the cactus’ and would not do so again. This intriguing phrase comes from the recovery movement, and was famously used by Robert Downey in a plea to forgive fellow actor Mel Gibson for some terrible behaviour under the yoke of addiction, familiar to both of those men. It means to face one’s darkest self so as to come into the light—a process as uncomfortable as hugging a cactus. The pastor in the story used the phrase a little differently— though he had done nothing wrong, he acted with the same humillity as an addict seeking the road to recovery. The cactus he hugged just turned out to be a prickly parishioner.
The well meaning but undiscerning advice of the pastor’s colleague had an unfortunate effect that anyone familiar with the recovery movement will recognize: the problem person, like an addict, was vindicated and enabled by the undeserved apology of the humble pastor.
God loves the sick and prickly too. Some are only minor problems in the church, like the tantrumy music leader, while others are the kind the apostle Jude tells us we should pull from the fire ‘hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.’
For both the prickly sorts and for their neighbours who get painfully stuck by them, love means firmness—not enabling them. To everything there is a season, says the Preacher—and while we are protecting the innocent, it is a time to put our personal humility on the back burner.
Don’t worry– God will provide us with plenty of other opportunities to learn that virtue!