I believe that everyone should see a good counselor, because sometimes they tell you things about yourself that you never realized. And most of the time, they’re simultaneously the things you didn’t want to see in yourself yet need to know.
Last Wednesday, I sat across from my counselor Anne as I do twice a month. In the homey comfort of her office, with her comfy couch and peaceful silence, with the space heater turned on to prevent us from freezing, I unpacked the events that had happened in my life between our meetings and turned them over in my hands for her, hoping she could find some hope and growth within their depths. I even brought up the topic of a paper I will be writing in the next month for my Christian Tradition class. I had come across two topics about which I felt pretty excited but was torn over which one to choose. One was about a black female pastor named Jarena Lee, who, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, had a life-altering conversion experience which empowered her to blaze a path to the male-dominated pulpit.
My second choice was John Calvin and how his doctrine of predestination has been used as a source of elitism to control society, in a way that named clear distinctions between those who were “in” and those who were “out”.
If you couldn’t already tell by how I described the topic, this is something I have some strong and conflicted feelings about, and I sensed that I had some deconstructing to do with Anne regarding this.
Here’s the thing: I have wrestled with many ideologies, theologies, doctrines, and other big fancy concepts throughout my faith journey. And in my years of wrestling, I have made peace with, among other things, women in leadership and even the doctrine of predestination. While I have strong convictions that God is all-embracing, all-loving, and all-empowering, I have come to a tentative state of peace with the fact that opposing doctrines exist in the world, and I have generally tried to look the other way when these arguments come up to “maintain the peace,” so to speak.
Here’s the other thing, though: While I’ve made peace with the doctrine, I have not yet made peace with the people who embrace it. The cold, painful truth is I still hate Calvinists (and others who hold tightly to the doctrine of predestination).
As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite qualities about Anne is the way she pushes and challenges me to take an honest yet graceful look at myself instead of patting me on the head and saying “There, there, you poor thing.” So, in traditional Anne-fashion, instead of shaking her head and agreeing that I had every right to hate such backwards people with such an awful theology, she smiled after I made my confession and said, “I see. You’re bigoted towards them.”
Which was not exactly the answer I was expecting to hear.
Of course, this was news to my perfectionist ego, and my mind immediately flipped to defense mode. Who was she to say I was the bigot? I was in seminary. I was learning more about white privilege in two semesters than I had in my entire 23 years of life. I was part of a congregation that did its best to live by its creed, “Everyone means everyone.” I coordinated a mentoring program that worked to build relationships with the “at-risk” kids, the ones everyone else looked at with disdain and suspicion but I looked at with love and hope. Didn’t she realize that these people were the ones who were bigoted against me, against the people they didn’t believe were elect? How dare she lump me in the same category as them? How could she get this twisted?
But then the examples of the times I’ve lumped people into groups of “us” versus “them” computed. When I remembered the times as a child that I stuck with those I called “friends” and avoided those I deemed “not friends,” when I was a part of youth group but still labeled “the Super Christians” and “the backsliders,” when I went to seminary and started labeling those who held my convictions as “the progressives” and “the ones who love everyone” and those who opposed me as “the bigots” and “the ones full of hatred,” my own bigotry reared its ugly head at me.
I knew Anne brought this to my attention for good reasons. But I want to be perfect. And I couldn’t get over the fact that I never will be perfect, because the whole facade of me not being hateful had imploded in her cozy office.
My perfectionist tendencies and the cold, hard truth of my humanity have always been at war. I’ve tried to make myself think better and be better, thinking that if I can just fix myself, I won’t be full of hatred anymore. Then my humanity knocks me down a few pegs when I read another article by John Piper or someone at Bed Bath and Beyond gives me a hard time because their As Seen on TV product didn’t perform as expected. I feel the tension and weariness of battle in my body from trying to be saint over sinner.
Another awesome quality about Anne is that the minute she calls me out on my own shortcomings, she calls out her own. After she reminded me of my bigotry, she followed it up by explaining, “Everyone is a bigot to someone. I have my bigotry, you have yours, everyone else has theirs. But the way to growth is by admitting it.” She told me how she tenses up when people call her to set up appointments but say they need “a Christian counselor.” She knows this about herself, she catches herself doing it, she accepts that she does it. She also accepts that while she can’t fix her attitude, she can control how she responds. And she does her best to choose openness over exclusivity.
So I guess I’m not alone in this battle, and I guess that’s what makes all the difference.
I realized that Anne called me out on my bigotry, not so I could beat myself up about it, or even try to make me “better.” She told me this crucial information about myself, and humanity in general, so I could learn to be gracious, first to myself, and then to others, the ones I love who will inevitably fall off of the pretty little pedestals I built for them, and the ones who outright piss me off. She told me because like me, she is also on a journey, one that involves joy and despair, steps forward and steps backward, one that no one can take alone.
She was reminding me that I need to believe that the God who has grace enough for me and my story has grace enough for the people for whom I don’t show enough grace and their stories.
Maybe if we, hell, maybe if I, truly believed in a God of grace, maybe if we truly accepted this grace, it wouldn’t seem so difficult to give it away.
So I guess since I’m not alone, I’ll continue to unpack this, with Anne, with my friends, with my family, with my professors, with my church, with anyone willing to listen to me yammer on for a few minutes.
But first, I’ll try to show myself a little grace sometime this week, and try to show it to someone else, too. Because Anne has taught me, as have many others who have gone before me, that all I can really do is pray for Grace to inspire me to continue to choose love over fear and hatred, for Grace to continue to catch me when I fall, and for Grace to point out the imago Dei in me and the person in front of me.