THE SCARLET LETTER
by David Sisler
Man of God falls! Film at eleven!
"A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes."
In spite of the cinematic efforts of Demi Moore and Gary Oldman to disguise it, aided and abetted by screen writer Douglas Day Stewart, you recognize those words as the opening sentence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's remarkable novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne describes Hester Prynne's secret lover, the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale as a "young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest land. His eloquence and religious fervour had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession."
That was 1850. In 1996 eloquence and religious fervour frequently still give a minister greater notoriety and standing in the community thanprivate devotion, temperance and continence, but today it is Arthur Dimmesdale who wears the scarlet letter. Hester gets a centerfold layout in a nudie magazine and a made-for-TV movie.
A close examination of the diploma issued by a Bible college or seminary probably does not have a warning label, but one should be posted prominently. Every year 1,300 U.S. pastors are fired or forced to resign, not all for sexual impropriety, but more than one-third admit to "inappropriate sexual behavior" with church members. The same sexual sins which leveled Samson, David, and Solomon, and modern religious leaders like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are waiting to attack every man or woman who answers God's call to the ministry.
The ministry brings with it serious built-in hazards. The leadership, compassion and authority which go hand-in-hand with being a successful pastor may become a powerful magnet to improper attractions. The built-in confidentiality of pastoral relationships opens potential doors of abuse. Counseling sessions with the opposite sex are bombs waiting to explode when confidentiality become secrecy. A minister who is afraid to talk to his wife about frequent meetings with a female parishioner for fear his wife will become jealous may already have crossed the line of propriety and marital faithfulness.
It is a tender trap. The minister is hurting from battles with his church board. Or maybe the push and pull of every day life have closed the doors of communication with his wife. Another woman, a member of his parish, shows him extra attention. She is hurting, too, and turns, properly, to her pastor. It is innocent at first, but they begin to hold hands when they pray and the touching lingers after the "Amen." She gives him words of encouragement and he hears them hungrily. Maybe they are the same things his wife has already said, but there is something appealing about this new voice, and it is not accented by a snotty-nosed, screaming kid in the background. He arranges for another counseling session. And the trap is sprung.
If a minister falls to sexual temptation it begins a domino-effect of damage and destruction: the minister's spouse, their children, the church they serve, the cause of Christ. But before that day happens every minister must look at himself or herself in the mirror and ask, "What will this do to me? My reputation? My usefulness? My self-esteem?" The minister's protection begins with personal accountability.
Ministers must have someone to trust with their deepest fears, frustrations and spiritual wrestlings. It is risky to expose your reputation to another person, but if fantasies have become flirtations, the consummation of an adulterous relationship is well within reach. One pastor, who was experiencing strong sexual temptation called a friend with whom he had breakfast meeting scheduled for the following day and said, "Pray for me today and tomorrow morning ask me what I did today." The knowledge that he would have to face his friend and tell him that he had sinned was the extra spiritual strength he needed to defeat the temptation.
The massive doors which barred the invaders from entering the castle scarcely noticed the first time that the battering ram struck them. But slowly and with continued pounding, the fiber of the wood began to soften. The stress mounted and one final blow breached the fortress. If the defenders had repelled that first attack, their sanctuary would never have been conquered.
The "earnest (promise/pledge) of high eminence in [one's] profession" is no protection from the moral land mines which can destroy families and churches. The small attacks mount up. The subtle attacks of temptation are not repelled, spiritual strength is not reinforced, and disaster is only one heart beat away. Outrageous pride says, "It will never happen to me." Careful self-examination says, "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall."
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 12/7/96
Copyright 1996 by David Sisler
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