...self care is never a selfish act- it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Telling and Hearing Secrets

"We help people move toward grace and love, as we receive confessions of secrets bound by shame, and people are able to share confessions when they find themselves in a community of hospitality."  Emma Justes

Who listens to your secrets?
Are we as sick as our secrets?  One of the costs of never letting go of secrets is not living the life that is ours to live. Secrets and shame require isolation, which makes for a very lonely life. We cobble together a fake and false self, until we are ready to let go of the shame and its exhausting toll on our lives.

In Please Don't Tell (2014) Emma Justes, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Care at United Theological Seminary, writes a volume to prepare clergy and spiritual companions how to listen to the long guarded, shame filled secrets of others. In doing so, Justes shows great compassion for those who, in telling, can receive the healing love of God, and the freedom to be. 

A person chooses to tell us their shameful secret. What should the secret sharer expect from those of us who listen? Justes argues that the character of our openness and hospitality will determine how effectively we can listen- or if we can be approached to begin with. Try this: hear what the speaker is actually saying. 

But there are so many blocks to honest listening:

  • Discerning truth instead of just listening

  • My physical limitations, such as fatigue and tiredness

  • Poor self-awareness, which will distract me with self concern

  • My thoughts which race ahead of the speaker's words-  to prepare an answer, judge or fix

  • My discomfort with any parts of another's secret

  • My secret(s)

    These dynamics can prevent us from hearing what is actually said by the secret bearer. Which means that the opportunity to be heard and begin healing can be diminished and disrupted by our own intrusive "stuff." 

  • Secrets are like confessions, in that they are kept in families or churches for life-times and generations (King David's family and Joseph and his brothers are referenced later in the book). Some secrets  may never see the light of day. However, confidentiality has limits and does not include a charge of child or elder abuse, which must be reported to the authorities. Clergy, according to Justes, also should report any threat of another doing harm to self or someone else. The statute regarding child abuse and neglect in Texas is here.

    I found Justes' discussion of lying, in the context of secret-keeping, more helpful than what she has to say about shame. "Both truth telling and lying can function in the service of healing or doing harm, sometimes both," Justes asserts. Justes then tells of the abuse suffered by her mother and kept secret for many years. Regardless, the secret-keeping did not hinder Justes mother from taking action to protect and safeguard her own children from the abuser.
    On shame, a play on shamelessness is used to suggest that shame, like truth telling isn't unambiguous. Shame, according to Justes, is best understood in "balance" on a continuum between extreme self-disregard and complete autonomy. But is the balance normative or descriptive? Is a little shame a good thing? While balance is a favorite tool of psychologists, Justes describes it mostly via negative with little, if any, explanation of how the balance is discovered. Or do you just use balance and healing interchangeably?

    The discussion of the place of memory in secret telling prompted me to look at the seven "sins" of memory. How often do we forget that memory itself is subjective, especially in what we see, how we store the event, and how it is recalled through many years. Miroslav Volf is quoted: "Remember truthfully. Remember therapeutically. Learn from the past."  

    The power of love and acceptance is found in the discussion of Luke 15, and especially in the story of God's "prodigal" love, which is "extravagant to the point of being wasteful." Healing from secrets "depends on having someone to talk to with about the secret over a period of time and may include forgiveness of one's self or of others."  Forgiveness is a choice the secret- keeper makes and we shouldn't try to force it, since "the secret -keeper is likely to experience more shame for not being able to forgive."  

    I recommend this volume for anyone who is given the ministry of hearing the confessions or secrets of others. Whether or not we discern that a referral to a mental health professional, etc. is appropriate, we are responsible for checking in with those who share their secrets with us, offering continued support.

    Because it's impossible to offer what you do not have, I can't help noting the clear implications of this book for pastors and spiritual directors: we need trustworthy people in our lives who can listen carefully to our secrets.         

    Thursday, September 4, 2014

    Prayer of Proverbs

    Two things I ask of you;
        do not deny them to me before I die:
    Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
        give me neither poverty nor riches;
        feed me with the food that I need,
    or I shall be full, and deny you,
        and say, “Who is the Lord?”
    or I shall be poor, and steal,
        and profane the name of my God. 
    Proverbs 30:7-9 NRSV 

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    Welcome! I serve Chapelwood, a United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. Clergy are frequently present for others, but no one can offer what we don't have.. That's why if you're a clergy person, you need someone who will listen to you. Not the next closest person available, but rather someone like a spiritual director, a therapist, a peer who can be fully present to you. I hope the links and posts you find here will give you ideas, humor, hope and encouragement. Scott Endress

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