Lent and the Helplessness of God

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elder abuse

My oldest daughter is a forensic nurse examiner.  She wonders if elder abuse is as, and may be even more, common than child abuse.  It’s often easier to hide.  Frail people are prone to falls.  Brittle bones break and thin skin bruises.  If the caregiver reports a spill and the elderly patient is afraid to report an intentional shove, how is a nurse or doctor to know the truth?

We know this truth: when we are weak, we are at risk, and not just from accident and illness.  We are at risk from those whose charge it is to keep us, from those in whose care, whether tender or cruel, we are.

It is instructive that, when Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil,” one of the demonic temptations was to power and control.

It is a fearsome thing to be over another, to have another’s life in one’s hands.

Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

It’s easy to see this as a cosmic struggle, one in which we have no say.  Who gets invited to the mountaintop?  Who is offered “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence?”  Our choices — of jobs and neighborhoods and travel, the tokens of power and prestige — are limited.  Most of us will never even travel on a private jet, let alone own one.  Let Bill Gates worry about that, we think, this is not a temptation for us.

But almost every man and woman has a smaller, weaker person in his care, or under her supervision.  To be over another is a nearly universal human experience.  Many of us are parents, and all of us have parents.  And, despite the presence of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in every state and in virtually every town and city, family members care for most of the elderly.

And it is the caregivers most often responsible for the bruises and broken bones, the shaken frames and scalded limbs of these weaker ones that doctors and nurses treat in emergency rooms.  We watch movies about the dangerous stranger, perhaps because we cannot bear to look in the mirror.  Of all cases of ”shaken baby syndrome,” the “stranger” is simply not a statistical factor.  Two thirds of the offenders are male, with stepfathers, boyfriends and fathers leading the terrible way, and then comes the women, specifically female babysitters and mothers.  All of them are caregivers.

In their study, “An Update on Child Abuse and Neglect,” by Rebecca Tenney-Soeiro and Celeste Wilson, the authors conclude, “Parents were the perpetrators in 77% of child fatalities.”   Not boyfriends or female babysitters, but mothers and fathers, the ones whose very names connote shelter and security, “were the perpetrators in 77% of child fatalities.”

Paul writes of the scandal of the cross; I think he should have used the plural, scandals.  There are so many, beginning with the reckless way Jesus, from birth until death, is put, helpless, into the hands of human beings.  God is helpless and we are in control.

In the passion story Jesus is arrested and bound.  He is tried and scourged.  He is burdened with the heavy instrument of his murder.  He is derided and ridiculed and spat upon.  He suffers in the bright sun, with neither shade nor fan nor cooling water.  His companions are also his captors.

His companions are also his captors.  That is true of most the beaten, strangled, raped and burned my daughter sees in the hospital.  Their companions are their captors; their guardians are their tormentors.

It is a fearsome thing to be over another, to have another’s life in one’s hands.

Jesus’ answer to his tempter is simple.  He is never rude or violent, just direct.  “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”  God the Father holds power; God the Son has no need of it.

Soon we will come to Passion Week.  We will reflect again on the terrible helplessness of God.  This, too, is Incarnation, incarnation in a world infected by sin.  Jesus bows and bends and bleeds with every woman who ever begged her attacker to stop, with every man who ever pleaded for mercy, with every silent infant and old person who bore the blows, uncomprehending and afraid.  He cries out with every victim who calls upon God and sees no sign of his presence.  He dies with all who have no tomb, who share the common graves of this violated earth.

Lent begins with a choice.  We can take and wield power over others or acknowledge, with Jesus, that we are called, not to rule, but to serve.  No choice will keep us from the cross, but it will determine if we carry it, or if we thrust it upon other, less powerful, shoulders than our own.

– Melissa Musick