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Monday, April 18, 2011

A Parable of Monkeys

Monday in Holy Week.

And so, once again, we begin again to hear the old, old story of the Passion of Jesus. We have heard the story so often over the years that some of us can repeat the story without looking at the words on the page.

The story isn't so much predictable because it is familiar, but rather because we recognize the predictability of human behavior.

Change is the only constant in life. And yet, when someone proposes something new - a new way of doing things, a new way of considering things,  a new perspective on the world - others may get anxious or frightened about the change in status quo.

It's like watching one of those toy mobiles one can find above an infant's crib, with several gently moving, brightly colored shapes hanging on individual strings, each connected to the other and the entirety by a single string.

The unit moves 'round in a synchronized whole until the baby tries to grab for one of the shapes. Then the whole thing swings wildly out of sync until, by sheer force of inertia, it eventually settles down into the same familiar pattern.

Some people can't stand being out of sync - even temporarily - even if they know that eventually, the forces of inertia will have out and everything will settle back down again.

There is something very comforting about the familiar even when anyone can see that the familiar is no longer working or contains toxins or pollutants which mitigate against the process and progress that are inevitable to attaining a healthy life.

Years and years ago, I had a therapist announce rather abruptly, after a little over a year's worth of therapy, that our work was done and she was going to terminate our relationship.

I was stunned. Confused. Hurt. "Why?" I asked.

"Well," she said, calmly, "I see you, you know. You are sitting on top of a huge pile of your own crap. I keep throwing you shovels, saying, 'Here, use this one. You can get yourself out of this mess.'"

"But you keep saying, 'Well, it's not so bad. After all, it's soft. It's actually quite comfortable here. And, after a while, you get used to the smell. Besides, it's just so much work to shovel myself off this pile of crap. Why won't you help me?'"

She lowered her glasses over her nose, looked me square in the eye and said, "Elizabeth, no one is able to change your situation but you. You have to do it yourself. I don't have a magic wand that will make it all go away. Besides," she said, "I'm not going to let you off the hook only so you can blame me when you get uncomfortable with the unfamiliar."

Her words had the desired effect. I started shoveling. For the next three years, I shoveled - hard - as if my life depended on it. Because, in fact, it did. I didn't know it, but I had been suffocating in my own crap.

I remember, once, saying to her later in the therapy, "I don't understand. I'm confused."

"You know, you say that a lot," she said, "You say, 'I don't understand. I'm confused'. I'm wondering: is that how you sabotage yourself from doing the work you need to do? By staying confused? It's a very convenient excuse, isn't it?"

Then, she lowered her glasses over her nose - always a dangerous sign - and asked, "When are you going to see that it's just an excuse to stay a bit longer on your own pile of crap?"

She was good, wasn't she? Tough, but good. I really owe so much of the quality of my present life - indeed, the shape of my ministry - to my work with her.

There's something, as well, about the "One Bad Experience" which can shape and form the psyche and soul of an individual as well as a community.

Someone does something innocent - perhaps even altruistic - to make a change and the result is disastrous. Years later, one can hear, "Well, so-and-so tried that once and look what happened."

Indeed, I've heard some clergy say those exact words about not proposing some change or initiating something new in the congregation.

"I'll know I'll get crucified if I tried anything like that, even though I know and they know that the change is needed. Look what happened to Jesus! He died once, for all, so I don't have to."

I remember being caught in one particular situation of group conflict which was reflective of that sentiment.

It had been a start-up ministry in which the group had spent years fundraising to call their first leader.  After about six months of establishing the ministry and it was starting to find some sense of equilibrium, I began to talk with the board about raising money for the next year.

They panicked!  They really thought they could settle back now and just relax. They had accomplished their task and called a leader. While they loved what was happening and the things I had initiated, they absolutely hated the fact that their work as a board had only just begun.

I called in a retired bishop to act as a consultant. After talking with him for awhile, I remember demurring, slightly, and saying, "You know, bishop, they are good people. They are just scared and confused, is all."

The bishop sat up in his chair, leaned over to me, put on his Big Bishop voice and said, "And who do you think crucified Jesus? They were good people. They were just scared and confused."

Then, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "Your job as their leader is to not let them use their anxiety and fear to sabotage this wonderful, important ministry. If you can't do that - and, you may not be able to do that because they are so scared and confused - then it's time to terminate your relationship with them. Because, if you don't, they'll crucify you and blame you for the failure of the ministry, which would be a lie. "

"And," he added, serious as a heart attack, "as much as I think Jesus loves this ministry, he doesn't want you be be crucified in His name."

Indeed, I left shortly thereafter to accept another position which I believe Jesus put in my vocational path. Last I heard, that ministry lives on, but only Very Part Time. In the end, the board went with what they were comfortable knowing and doing - and able to control.

Meanwhile, I'm told that a discontent simmers just underneath the surface of the board dynamic because they know that this ministry "isn't what it could be". But they sigh and quietly lament and blame it on the leader.

As you consider the events of the Passion of Jesus, I invite you to consider the ways in which you play some part in the human drama that unfolds during Holy Week. You know the story well. You may even know all the words of your lines by heart.

I offer the following 'Parable of Monkeys' which was sent to me by a dear friend. He sent it as a commentary about the current political debates over the budget and the deficit, but I think it has a great deal to say about all institutional and community behavior - including the church.

See if this doesn't resonate with some of your own experience:
If you start with a cage containing five monkeys and inside the cage, hang a banana on a string from the top and then you place a set of stairs under the banana, before long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, you spray all the other monkeys with cold water. After a while another monkey makes an attempt with same result ... all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all of the other monkeys beat the crap out of him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys, replacing it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment... with enthusiasm.

Then, replace a third original monkey with a new one, followed by a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, none of the monkeys will try to climb the stairway for the banana.

Why, you ask? Because in their minds...that is the way it has always been!
The banana at the top of the stairs is the promise of Resurrection.

But first, you have to shovel through Holy Thursday and Good Friday before you can climb the stairs to reach it.


JCF said...

Nitpicking disclaimer: the four primates shown in your post are chimpanzees (apes, not monkeys).

I'm not sure I could cope w/ a therapist/therapy like you had. Uff da.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's okay, JCF. These Chimps can't see, hear or tell the difference ;~)

She was brilliant. Really. Just what I needed.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I have come to believe in the power of institutional memory.

My parish, when you look at the 140 plus years of its life, the average tenure of a priest is 4 years. With the exception of one that stayed over 20 years, hardly any of them stayed 8 years, and that came with much weirdness to "preserve the relationship." There were years in its history it did without or "borrowed" clergy from a neighboring town.

When our interim came, he pointed that out. It was met with shock and disbelief. "You mean that's not typical for a parish our size?" "No. It's not."

I really don't know quite what that means yet. I keep wondering, "What is it in the institutional memory that needs to change? What can I do as one person, to let that change begin, when I don't even know what the 'lesion' was or how it got there in the first place?"

I think and pray a lot on that. I know I am just one person. But I want to be led to do the part that DOES begin with me, in the hopes others might do the same.

Matthew said...

The sermon in the link below is not exactly related to the one you posted today (it actually reminded me of one of your posts a few weeks ago, but I did not want to go back and find the old post, plus probably few would see the link that way. I saw this today and decided to share with you and your readers:


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Institutional memory has lots of power. This one is very interesting. There may be lots of complicating factors. I think your attitude is a good one.