Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Primary Relationship

Last Thursday, my youth director and I attended a seminar on boundaries.

For the most part, the seminar was okay.  It was quite predictable.  Much of the material was essentially common sense thought in how to prevent abuse--sexual and otherwise.

But there were a couple of things that rubbed me a bit raw.

1. The power issue.  I belong to a denomination that is obsessed with power.  The ELCA has bought into the dichotomous thinking of liberation theologies where the world is viewed through the lens of oppressor/oppressed, and sense God has a preferential disposition toward the oppressed, the voices of the oppressed must be valued, raised up, etc.  Hence, there is no shortage of identity based theologies clamoring for ascendancy: Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Native American Liberation Theology, GLBTQ Theology, and the like.

There are a whole host of problems with this particular theological view, but now is not the time to go into such problems on a theological level.  I want to address something on a more practical level, particularly as it related to this course.  As we discussed the role of a clergy or a "professional" we were told that we, by virtue of our position are those in the power position.  (Never mind the conflict with Jesus' particular view that in order to be great in the kingdom--which we proclaim--we are actually last of all and servant of all.)  This differs from a marriage or dating relationship where two people come together as equals.

But wait!!!  If feminist liberation theologians are correct, then a marriage relationship or dating relationship is not of equals!!!  Males have the power!!!  Women do not!!!  How can we make a distinction between relationships if power dynamics govern both in such a manner?  Seems like we need to rethink our theology or our worldview in order to have a more solid basis when discussing boundaries.

2. Perhaps the most laughable line of the gathering was the emphasis that boundaries actually give freedom.  Not so much.

I mean, I'm going to split hairs here for just a moment because it is what I like to do.  :-)

I give my kids rules for a reason.  I tell them, "Don't play in the street," for a reason.  It's a limitation on their freedom, not for freedom, but for safety.  Within the boundaries (i.e. in the yard up to the sidewalk) they can run and play and go bananas--because they are safe.  They are not free.  There is a difference.

In this seminar, we were basically encouraged to make up more rules.  Make up more policies.  In theological speak, it was, "Make up more laws."

Newsflash: laws do not make you free.  They shackle you.  Martin Luther, the great reformer said, "The Law always kills."  There is a reason he said this.

First off, no one follows the Laws totally and completely.  No one.  In one part of the seminar, there was a list of rules to follow when it came to certain interactions.  I commented to my youth director, "I've probably broken nearly all of those."  Why?  Because many of those particular rules are broken each and every day in our relationships with each other as we laugh and joke and play with each other.  All one need do is turn on the television for a few minutes to see more than a few boundary violations.  Is it any coincidence that the rise in people getting offended has paralleled our loss of humor as a society?  We have failed to add context to what goes on in interaction, and that has led to some scary situations.

Among those scary situations is a societal trend of emotional reasoning.   Essentially this means a person allows his or her emotions to guide his or her interpretation of reality.  Some celebrate this; however, it is not to be celebrated.  It is actually a cognitive distortion.  (Leahy, Holland, McGinn, Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders)  Just because you or I see something as reality does not mean it is actually reality.  A pastor who gently places his hand on a crying woman's shoulder--for all intent and purposes--is likely trying to offer compassion; however, that woman may have been a victim of physical abuse, and she interprets the actions as abusive or sexual in nature.  Who is right?  This pastor's life could be upset for years if this woman presses charges--even though her interpretation of reality is not reality.  The answer is not: more policies and more laws.  For heaven's sake, there were 613 commands in the Old Testament, and the people couldn't follow them!!  The laws and commands are not the problem.  The problem will be addressed below.

Secondly, if someone actually thinks he or she can and does follow the laws, commands, and policies, it almost always leads to a sense of self-righteousness, smugness, and confidence in one's ability to be morally upright and superior to others--almost always.  This leads to an "if I can do it, you should do it too" attitude.  Of course, the problem with this is two-fold.  Self-righteous people are almost always seen as a$$holes by regular folks.  (I speak from personal experience as one who has traveled long upon the self-righteousness road.)  Secondly, when such a person falls, and there have been many (think televangelists who get caught engaging in extra-marital sex) then great damage is not only done to that person's credibility--there is also great damage done to the institution of the Church.  Self-righteousness also leads to an us/them mentality.  We pure, upright, honest people are doing it right versus those heathens over there who can't get their proverbial $h!t together.  Such an attitude is hardly what we are called to espouse and set forth as Christians.

Both of these paths are "killer" paths.  They damage individuals.  They damage the Church.  They damage the soul.  More laws are not the answer.  More policies are not the answer.  What is?  Onto the third and final point.

3. The money comment which was made during this seminar was the following, "Abuse of boundaries takes place when there is a problem in the primary relationship."

Please re-read that comment again, because I think it is of vital importance.

But here is my fear: my greatest fear is that most people in the room thought the primary relationship had to do with their spouse or significant other.  My fear is that the "primary relationship" centered upon wife or husband or partner or boyfriend or girlfriend or the like.  And that is not the primary relationship.  It cannot be.  Why?

There are always problems with that relationship.  Always.  There are no perfect marriages.  There are no perfect relationships.  There is always going to be some sort of conflict.  There is always going to be some sort of animosity or anger or jealousy.  Two imperfect people cannot ever and will not ever come together to make something that is perfect.  And if those two imperfect people have added a couple of little imperfect people into the mix...well, then that just adds another whole layer or two or ten of imperfection, stress, anxiety, and the like--things that lead to boundary violations.

You see, our marriages, our friendships were never meant to satisfy us.  They were never meant to give us fullness or completeness.  They were never made to give us our identity or well being.  Imagine if you expect your closest relationship to bear all of those things.  Imagine if you thought your relationship with your spouse was capable of giving you all of those things even when your spouse or significant other is having a really, really bad day.  Is it any wonder so many marriages fail these days?

The problem isn't necessarily with marriage.  The problem is the focus on the wrong relationship.  The relationship with a spouse isn't the primary relationship.  The primary relationship is the one with one's Creator.  The primary relationship we have is with God.  We should know this in the church--should.

And so we return to that important statement: when something is wrong with the primary relationship, boundary violations occur.

Which raises the question: how do you make sure the primary relationship is right?  How do you make sure you are right with God?

Well, now we get to the heart of the Gospel.  For if we are orthodox in our belief, we confess that there is nothing we can do to make that relationship right.  There is nothing we can do on our part to make that relationship whole.  If we could--then we would become extremely self-righteous.  If we could, we would be able to follow every Law and command.  If we could, then there would never have been any need for Jesus and the cross.  We cannot make that relationship right.

But God already has.

Through the incarnation.  Through the cross.  Through the blood of Jesus, we are made right with God.

That relationship has been made right when you were unable to do it.  That relationship has been made right by sheer grace--by God's action and not your own.

Therefore, you have no room to boast or become self-righteous.
You have no room to become arrogant.


You have no need to find your identity, your fulfillment, your sense of well-being from anything but God.  When you are seeking these things elsewhere, that means you are not trusting in what God has done--instead you are trusting in yourself--in what you think you have to do.

When you violate boundaries, it means you are not trusting in what God has accomplished for you.  You are returning to works/righteousness instead of the Gospel of grace.  The answer to the problem of boundaries is not make more boundaries.  It's trust God more.  He is and has made the primary relationship whole.

I learned this lesson the hard way.  My hope and prayer is that others might have an easier time.

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