Impotent Words, Powerful Words

I’d like to introduce you to a friend and former student of mine, Matt Casada, a counselor and writer over at www.mattcasada.com.  There are many who are blogging and tweeting today, but I like to highlight up-and-coming voices that deserve a wide hearing.  When you read Matt’s words, I think you’ll know why.  You can read more about Matt at the end of this wonderful piece.  

Impotent Words, Powerful Words

Being that both my wife and I are counselors, we are for a lack of better words, in the business of bad news and sad stories. Week after week, we sit with people working through various aches and pains, disappointments and rejections, tragedies and traumas. And yet, one doesn’t simply stroll through the valleys without noticing dark clouds as they hide the light.

A few weeks ago, we received news that two different people from two different parts of our worlds had committed suicide within twenty-four hours of one another. Full of lament, I wondered what to say to dear friends who had just lost a son and brother. I wondered if I had words worth sharing: words that mattered, words that meaningfully impacted these dear ones.

Somehow in the face of such grief and loss, it’s hard to find ways to adequately speak into the pain and agony. Though I spent two years and a good deal of money towards a masters degree that would give me tools and skills to walk with people through their pain, I felt the impotence of words while journeying into this sacred space of loss.

I had and have no words capable of making our friends less sad. I had and have no words that allow someone to come to terms with losses that were never intended to be part of our human experience. I had and have no words powerful enough to insert peace and joy into the chaos and confusion found in the dark nights of the soul.

So often as we come into this soil of brokenness, we feel the uncomfortable pressure to become emotional surgeons. Charged with the task of cutting out and removing any remnants of sadness, ache, and pain, we invalidate thoughts and feelings meant to move us towards relationship. In this role, we will inevitably use our words as tools of harm that create distance rather than a deeper sense of connectedness.

Living from this place, even the kindest words can become self-serving boundaries veiled behind the guise of compassion. Somehow in the darkest, hardest places in life, words about God’s goodness, His good plans for those he loves, and promises to pray to this good God can become trite, empty words leaving the hearer even more alone in their pain.

If the purpose of our words is to manage pain or take away sadness, they will either fall short or create distance, leaving separation, loneliness, disappointment, and rejection. And all too often, our words have this lasting impact due to our need to hide.

In response to the deep disconnect from our inherent worth, value, and dignity we have moved into places of hiddenness. Tragically, our insistence upon hiding is one of the recurring themes found throughout Scripture. Like our first parents, we find fig leaves to hide behind, lest in our fear and shame, we be exposed.

Driven by this fear and shame, we feel the incessant need to do more, to say more in order to hide and cover up our insufficiencies. And though no two fig leaves are alike, we each create a cover up story based upon our performance. Here, we must find the right words and actions, constantly censoring ourselves so as to not be exposed.

This story of hiding is your story and mine, and it is a sad story. It is a story where the relational soil intended to bring about health and peace slowly erodes due to our perpetual movements towards hiding.

But what if in some paradoxical way, the dark places offer us a deep gift of redemption and restoration? What if somehow the shadows of the valley shine a light upon our hiding narratives, inviting us towards a different, restorative way of relating?

In the daily offices, those ancient prayers prayed by those seeking to faithfully pray without ceasing, there is a small section of offering prayers for those “who have been given to me, and to whom I have been given.” What if the kindest, best word we have to offer is found in the simple act of being given?

I wonder if often the most powerful words are the ones that communicate our presence and availability. These are words that say: “I’m with you and don’t want you to be by yourself in this darkness.” These are words that say: “You matter to me. Your pain and ache matter to me. They matter enough to me that I’m willing to be with you while you’re there.”

Isn’t this the very thing that makes Christianity so powerful? The Scriptural narrative repeatedly tells of a God who uses words to emphatically remind us of His presence with and for us. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Messiah, God with us, embodies words that say: “I am with you. Literally, I am with you in your pain, your shame, and your sorrow. There is nowhere I wouldn’t go in order for you to know that I am with you.”

Do we believe that the deepest offering we have in moments of ache and joy is simply found in offering the countenance of our full self? Maybe the best thing that can happen to us is found in being given the divine opportunity to sit with our discomfort while we sit with the pain of another. For it is here that we have the opportunity to practice the power of being. Because being is something worth practicing.

ABOUT MATT

976565_10101457756730715_557964198_oOriginally from Knoxville, TN, Matt moved to Orlando, FL in July of 2010 to attend Reformed Theological Seminary. After graduating in 2012 with a Masters in Counseling, Matt opened a counseling practice in the greater Orlando area.

During his time in grad school, Matt met and dated his wife Ryan who is also a counselor in the area.

Matt works with clients facing depression, anxiety, addiction, relational problems, loneliness, life transitions, grief, and issues around eating. His writing is deeply impacted and informed by his time walking with clients as they courageously face the realities of their lives.

You can get to know Matt and read more of his words at www.mattcasada.com and on twitter @mattcasada.

Leaving the wilderness: Advice for leaders and pastors

I wrote a book a few years back called Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.  In it, I argued that our personal journeys mirror the Exodus journey of the Israelites long ago.  I see this in four major movements – 1) leaving egypt, the place of our bondage and fear 2) sinai – the place where we learn of our true identity and the pathway to life 3) wilderness – the necessary place where our identity is questioned, wrestled with, disrupted, confused, and worked through in lament and 4) union – our life beyond the wilderness where our deep identity as the beloved is internalized, believed, and enjoyed. home_nopeople

Now, if we get ‘stuck’ at Sinai, we become Pharisees, refusing to grow through the necessary confusion and suffering which deepens our identity and intimacy in and with God.  This can be the case for the most rigid fundamentalist who runs fearfully from any inkling of disruption or doubt, or the certain liberal whose dogmatism and close-mindedness is no less toxic than the fundamentalist’s.  The wilderness is the necessary place of humiliation for us all.  It is the way of purgation, in the classic sense, where we are stripped of our arrogance, our self-righteousness, our hypocrisy. The wilderness becomes the furnace for transformation.

But the wilderness is not a final destination.  I’ve found that pastoring and loving people in the ‘wilderness’ requires great patience (particularly for yourself as you navigate it!)  It is den of paradox, uncertainty, and confusion.  Bold and risky prayers are prayed.  At times, people find themselves exploring concepts that are deemed outside the lines by the doctrine police, whether on the left or right.  Sometimes we act and behave eccentrically.  We might even hurt others and ourselves, leaving a spouse, or leaving a church, or giving up on faith.  We need patience for ourselves and others as we wrestle with God, much like Jacob did, as they declare their confusion, much like Job did.  Those in authority will be frustrated, dismayed, reactive, and punitive depending on where they are on their journey.

But what if we don’t leave the wilderness?  I’ve taught for a long time that some find this to be a destination, where their questions and confusion are “baptized,” where uncertainty becomes the new certainty, where coloring outside the lines becomes a new arrogant and self-righteous identity.  While Sinai brings the danger of Pharisaical legalism and moralism, the wilderness brings the danger of existentialism and even Gnosticism, a sense that my experience is normative, that my expanded wilderness consciousness brings me greater access to God.  In fact, to our dismay we might find that this is a new ‘Egypt’ for us, another prison.

There is a group identity that comes with each of these.  Where at Sinai we connect through “dogma-bonding,” in the wilderness we connect through “trauma-bonding.”  Ours becomes the “messy” church, or the “broken” church, or the “open” church.  The new Gnosticism emerges through a sense that “we get it,” that “we’ve progressed further,” that somehow this group is no longer enslaved to the old dogmas.  And indeed, there is a freedom felt in this for many who were trapped in their old dogmatism and moralism. While honoring this new sense of freedom, we need to invite people to see the dangers of getting stuck in the wilderness.

Sometimes, this comes from the seeing that the arrogance and certainty here are just as toxic to them and others.

Sometimes, it comes from an intellectual honesty which admits that this new uncertainty is, in itself, a form of certainty, a ‘position’, a ‘confession’.

Sometimes, it comes when the wilderness wanderer realizes how exhausted he is.  The exhaustion I’ve seen here comes from a constant need to be different, edgy, open, engaged with new thinking, constantly defining himself as different or other.

In the last chapter of the book Leaving Egypt, I write on “Theosis or Neurosis.”  Theosis is the ancient way of talking about union with Christ, living out of our deepest identity as the beloved of God.  In this place, we have no need to compare or compete, no need to parade our eccentricities or edgy ideas, no need to apologize for holding a position or living from a particular confession.  We’re simply transparent.  We recognize the beauty and brokenness of all traditions, all dogmas, even our own, but choose to remain in the simul iustus et peccator of it all.

We relinquish the need to perfect others, to perfect our church, to perfect the community or the world.

We don’t give up participation in the process of bringing about the flourishing of it all, but we give up the need to do it on our terms.

We act with grace toward others, even those with whom we disagree.  From this place of identity, we need not treat the world as a theological combat zone.

We don’t mock and we lose the desire to be purposefully incendiary.

We live from a place of confession, within a tradition, with transparency and without elitism or dogmatic certainty.

We can honestly say, “I might be wrong, but here I stand.”

We become more patient with ourselves and others, recognizing that they’re navigating their own unique place on the exodus journey, and that at any time, at any moment, we might find ourselves together in Egypt again, waking up to new attachments and idolatries and enslavements together.  This becomes a joy, because we realize how human we are, and it’s ok…because we’re “in Christ,” the most secure location possible.

This is the journey I’ve been navigating in fits and starts for years, with many ups and downs, at some cost to myself and others, but with many “happy returns” along the way.  I suspect you can relate.

But knowing that there is an Exodus ‘map’ helps me see that promised land and yearn for its Rest.  I hope it does the same for you.

Wholiness – Living Holy Lives Wholly

I lectured recently on holiness and wholeness.  “Holiness,” of course, has been the subject of conversation in the sanctification debates among the New Calvinists asking, ‘Can we expect to progress in our holy living?’  On the other hand, “wholeness” has been all the chatter since Brené Brown released her breakout book The Gifts of Imperfection.  Many Christians have been attracted to her message of vulnerability, brokenness, curiosity, and compassion.  In my talk, I hoped to say, “We might just be closer to one another than we think!”

Of course, Brené Brown didn’t invent the terms “wholeness” or “wholeheartedness.”  She’s a researcher who discovered certain things about living and thriving, success and failure, that caught her attention and changed her own life.  I’d like to think that she stumbled upon the secret written from the foundation of the world – that we are designed to flourish.  And human flourishing connects us to God’s vision for shalom – harmony, peace, wholeness.  Brené Brown stumbled onto the grand telos, though she didn’t know it.

Now, that grand telos is what Moses offered Israel in the law, saying in essence, “Here are God’s commandments – live in this way and you’ll thrive.”  And of course, he said, “Love the Lord with your whole heart.”  The commandments, the very symbol of “holiness,” were God’s first window into the life of shalom.  But Israel, like us, took the law as a sin-management tool rather than a vision for flourishing.  They became a noose rather than a balm.  And that holiness-legalism continues even today, enslaving us with guilt, with shame, with questions like, “What if I’m not enough?”

But Jesus ascended the Mount of Beatitudes as the “New Moses” with a new law.  He began by saying, “You’re far more broken than you think.”  Blessed are the ptochos – those who’ve come to the end of themselves, those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those who are impoverished in spirit.  And on he went, speaking of mourning and humility and desire and mercy and…purity.  And when we reach that Beatitude – the Purity Beatitude – we think to ourselves, “Well, here it goes…Jesus is going to tell us to get our acts together.”  (Note:  Purity is often all the buzz among Christian singles trying to make sure they don’t screw up sexually).

CrackedMaskBut purity, in the way Jesus understood it, was something radically different.  The Greek word he uses (katharos) gets ‘to the heart’ of the matter.  Purity, in this sense, is integrity (integer = whole number), wholeness, when our inner life matches our outer behavior.  Jesus was saying that you’re blessed when you abandon the hypocrisy (= stage acting) of the Pharisees, and join the community of the broken, the mourners, the humbled, and the hungry who can’t quite hide their sin behind masks.  The payoff of purity, Jesus says, is “seeing God.”  True contemplatives long to see God, abandoning the masks which block the view.

Later in the same mountain sermon, he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” which again makes us feel somewhat guilty, as if we’ve got to muster up the strength to match God’s utter perfection.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called Christians to a “costly discipleship” in contrast to a “cheap discipleship” must have loved this verse, we think.  However Bonhoeffer himself translates this passage “Be whole as your heavenly father is whole.”  The word there (teleios) gets at human flourishing, human wholeness, human thriving.  This is the aim and goal of human existence.  We actually get in the way with our legalistic striving and sin-management.

Of course, much later Søren Kierkegaard would write his book Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing.  And St. Paul may have wished he’d read it.  Paul, of course, would confess his own double-mindedness and inner contradictions in Romans 7 saying, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”  

You see, Paul knew what we know, that we’re all a mix of beauty and brokenness, love and lies, holiness and hiddenness.  

…Which brings me back around to wholeness and holiness.  Way back in Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve, naked and ashamed, hidden behind fig-leaved masks desperately afraid of God’s wrath.  That same guilt sometimes motivates us today.  We feel ashamed, fearful, a disappointment to God.  But God met them with the words, “Where are you?”  Not condemnation, not wrath, but a searching love, a Divine Curiosity, a Holy Empathy.

Our growing wholeness may actually come through honestly embracing the depth of our unholiness.  As we become more honest, God can see us, because we’ve come into the Light.  And then we can see God, as pure souls can.  Sometimes the addicts I see for counseling see God better than theologians I’ve known.  Brokenness can do that.

Bonhoffer writes:

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Perhaps being holy is to know increasingly that we are God’s, despite our many contradictions.  As we come out of hiding, known to God and neighbor, we become whole, pure, full of integrity, despite our continuing flaws.  We become more hungry and thirsty for the ways of God.  We show mercy because we’ve been shown mercy.  We suffer persecution because we’re willing to risk, to “dare greatly” as Brené Brown writes.  Holiness might not look like the perfectly manicured saint.  Holiness may in fact mean getting our hands and feet dirty for the sake of the other.  Holiness might actually lead us to want to lose the very selves we found when we were found.

And so, I commend to you Wholiness.  You’ll discover that it’s not really that hard.  You’ll hear Jesus saying, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”  He’s not trying to tie a noose around your neck.  He’s empowering you to live in freedom.

And so, be free.  Be wholly free.

Good theologizing means knowing YOUR story…

The late Robert Webber wrote a beautiful book called The Divine Embrace late in life.  In it, he talks of the beautiful and seamless marriage of theology and spirituality in the first centuries of the church.  In time, theology (dogma) would become a privileged task, spirituality would go underground into the monasteries, and the church would see a tragic disjunction between “God’s Story” and “my story.” Webber argues for a kind of reunion, rooted in Christian worship, where the Story is told and enacted, and where we become participants enjoying union for the sake of mission.

I’m all in on this.

I’ve known many who are skeptical of the “my story” piece, aware (as I am) of a culture of narcissism (Lasch) that is bred when people live independent of a larger, rooted narrative.  I agree.  However, I see a different kind of narcissism in those who ignore “my story” in favor of “God’s story,” people who fear the slippery slope to subjectivism, who are wary of anything therapeutic, who see the ‘fact’ of the Gospel as trumping the drama of the individual.  This latter narcissism is seen in theologically-minded men and women who don’t know themselves well enough to know their blindspots.  Their theological endeavors are sabotaged by a lack of emotional intelligence.  And without self-knowledge, their God-knowledge is ultimately impoverished.

For me, good theologizing requires the theologian to do deep work on his/her life, to know the narrative twists and turns that mirror the Gospel narrative twists and turns.  The major critique of the Pharisees by Jesus was hypocrisy.  They were stage-actors, wearing masks.  They were clean on the outside, and unclean on the inside.  They were straining gnats while swallowing camels.  This is what happens when we don’t take a deep look within, not in some hyper-therapeutic sense, but in the long, cherished spiritual traditions of the church (which will include and inform our therapeutic work).  

Augustine’s well-known prayer noverim me, noverim te (let me know myself, let me know you) roots me in the tradition while giving me permission to do the autobiographical searching required of a self-less saint.  In worship, I’m drawn into the Story, not in order to forget myself, but to find myself.  The self I “lose,” of course, is the “old self,” the “false self,” brought into the light during Confession.  At Communion, the one who was lost is now ‘found’, in union with Christ.  I become myself.  In the benediction, I’m reminded that I go with the blessing, to love and to serve.  As Webber says, we’re reunited to be re-directed.  And I need a lot of re-direction!

God’s story + my story.  Maybe theologians and therapists have a future together, after all.  

 

Introducing Chuck’s Newest Book: Toughest People to Love | A Video Trailer

People — frustrating, confusing, disappointing, complicated — are the most difficult part of leadership, and they challenge leaders everywhere, from leaders of many to managers of a few. In this book Chuck DeGroat addresses the flawed nature of people and offers wisdom for leaders of all types in dealing with just about anyone who is difficult to lead and to love.

Toughest People to Love explores the basics of how people “tick,” encouraging leaders to examine and take care of themselves so that they can better understand and care for others. Based on DeGroat’s wealth of experience as a pastor, professor, and therapist, this book — both wise and practical — is one that countless leaders will go back to time and again for valuable insights and renewed vision.

Every day…and yet…

Every day, it seems, there are new lines being drawn in the ecclesial sand.  New pillars of orthodoxy being erected.  New certainties formed and defended.

Every day, it seems, there is a new blog by a new prophet.  Another really good professor dismissed for coloring outside the lines.  Another progressive certain of her enlightenment.

Every day, it seems, there is an angry rant.  A volleying of theological grenades.  A confirmation of tribal beliefs not changed, only confirmed.

Every day, it seems, there is a new book.  And a quick rebuttal.  And pleads of, “We’ve read it right” on both sides.

Every day, it seems, students ask me, “What do you think?”  Pastors whisper in the shadows.  Prayers are sent for those really struggling, relegated to categories and tribal allegiances, and more often than not, to the shadows again.

Every day, it seems, I see a family torn by conflict.  I see digging in.  I see polarization growing.  I see curiosity and compassion diminishing.

And yet…

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Every day, it seems, I hear a student preach about Jesus dead and raised.  I hear a “Thank you, Jesus” in the Community Kitchen.  I hear a colleague say, “I don’t agree, but I’m so grateful for his presence.”

Every day, it seems, I’m refreshed again by a word from Augustine, a musing from St. Theresa, a wise word from John Piper or Brian McLaren.

Every day, it seems, pastors sit with wounded souls.  Therapists care for the abused.  Theologians “eat this book,” tasting and seeing and proclaiming good tidings of great joy.

Every day, it seems, I see people who choose curiosity over contempt, reflection over reaction, Jesus over judgment.  I see friends who are convicted, yet choosing to listen rather than speak.  I see brave souls who believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Every day, it seems, lions sit with lambs, and serpent’s don’t destroy, and dreams are dreamed by widows and addicts and orphans.

Every day, it seems, a young seminarian finds her voice.  Gray-haired elders speak words of life.  And the people proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

Every day, and yet.

Toughest People to Love :: What Reviewers are Saying…

Grateful for these reviews of my next book, Toughest People to Love

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John Ortberg
–author of Who Is This Man? and The Me I Want to Be
“Chuck DeGroat combines thoughtful reflection with psychological learning and spiritual vision. This book will give wise guidance to anybody who is called to lead.”

Steve Brown
– author of Three Free Sins: God Isn’t Mad at You
“Sometimes one discovers a book so helpful and profound that it never collects dust on one’s bookshelf. Toughest People to Love is that kind of book, and I will refer to it often. Here you will find accurate, insightful diagnosis and practical, biblical remedy. As a difficult person who deals often with difficult people, I find this to be a wonderful and life-changing book. Read it and be glad!”

Justin S. Holcomb
–Episcopal priest, seminary professor, author
Toughest People to Love is overflowing with wisdom and compassion. This is a book that I need personally, that I will assign in my seminary courses, and that will be an important resource as I develop leaders for the diocese in which I serve. . . . It is part self-awareness guide, part handbook on soul care, part leadership treatise, and part consultation on dealing with difficult people in the church.”

Dan B. Allender
–author of The Wounded Heart and Leading with a Limp
“This brilliant book is a road map through the morass of convoluted relationships we all face in our families, neighborhoods, work, and ministries. . . . I wish I’d had this indispensable resource — a life-giving well — much earlier in my life. I will return often to it.”

Fred Harrell
–senior pastor of City Church San Francisco
Toughest People to Love will make you a better leader, pastor, parent, and friend. But more than anything else, this book will guide you down a path of personal renewal and give you a new trajectory in your own journey to wholeness and integration. This is a book to read again and again as we seek to love the beautiful and broken people in our lives, including the person we see when we look in the mirror.”

Eric Johnson
–director of the Society for Christian Psychology
“This wise and winsome book on leadership takes us on a journey into the challenges and complexities of difficult relationships – with others and with ourselves. Reflecting the Christian wisdom that suffering can lead to human flourishing, DeGroat points us to the rest beyond bodily rest found paradoxically in the solitude and the deepening community with others that together center us in God.”

Tyler Johnson
–lead pastor of Redemption Gateway Church, Mesa, Arizona
“Chuck DeGroat clearly understands the realities of pastoral ministry. This book is both theologically robust and practical and therefore takes a well-rounded approach to human formation. It will substantially help those who want to understand what Christian leadership, counseling, and friendship really mean.”

The (Pastor’s) Journey

Mary Oliver’s poetry is life-giving.  I believe it can be especially life-giving for pastors.  We’re incurably committed to saving many souls.  We’re living out a messianic fantasy that we can change the world.  We beat ourselves up when we cannot fix or solve or cure or heal…and do it immediately.  We place an inordinate amount of weight on our “success.”  We compare and compete.  Our call to ministry, at times, is not even our own – it is our father’s, or our grandmother’s, or some youth pastor who saw something in us.  We’d barely recognize our own voice if we ever dared take the time to listen.

Enter Mary Oliver.  Feel the rest that comes with this invitation…     

One day you finally knew 
what you had to do, and began, 
though the voices around you 
kept shouting 
their bad advice—
though the whole house 
began to tremble 
and you felt the old tug 
at your ankles. 
“Mend my life!” 
each voice cried. 
But you didn’t stop. 
You knew what you had to do, 
though the wind pried 
with its stiff fingers 
at the very foundations, 
though their melancholy 
was terrible. 
It was already late 
enough, and a wild night, 
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones. 
But little by little, 
as you left their voices behind, 
the stars began to burn 
through the sheets of clouds, 
and there was a new voice 
which you slowly 
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper 
into the world 
determined to do 
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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Photo by gyaban

 

Powerlessness and the Pastor

The real spiritual journey depends on our acknowledging the unmanageability of our lives. – Thomas Keating

Only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. – Bill Wilson, Founder of AA

Note:  I offer this as a transparent look inside the heart of a leader with some influence into the lives of others.  I hope it is received well.  

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As I prepare to lecture on addiction tomorrow @westernsem, I’m at war within.  I find myself running through examples of other people.  This is an addiction seminar for pastors-in-training, and I’ve got (quite literally) folders full of examples of other church leaders from past and present who’d be perfect coverboys and covergirls for the “Addicted Pastor” – the pastor whose shame, defensiveness, isolation, and resistance to powerlessness create an environment ripe for real struggle. 

An easy example I picked off the top was quite recent – another Mark Driscoll example.  Yes, another one.  I might start a folder for him.  Confession:  I don’t like him.  I’m being honest, here.  I’m not writing under the influence of alcohol or drugs or other anti-inhibition self-medications.  No, I just don’t like him.  Recent and past examples of power misuse and abuse are enough – plagiarism, buying media attention, denying and blame-shifting.  But, even more, he’s hurt people I really love.  I’ve been doing this pastor-professor thing long enough to know real people, in real ministry situations, with real hurts connected to Mark.  So, I prepare my (lawyerly) case to present to my class…

But…should I?  Do I?  There is a war within.  At the seminary where I teach, I’d likely get some pushback.  But many others would pat me on the back.  Mark’s an easy target, these days.  He signed up for it, though.  A part of me that is quick to judge brings a biblical thought to mind, of course:

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1

I organize my notes and find just the right spot to introduce Mark’s latest miscue.  And, I find an excellent quote to go with it.  In my typically resourceful way, I’m quick to hunt down an old favorite:

“Our (deepest) addiction is to our own ego, and through this addiction our relationship to everything else is ruined.” Wendy Farley 

Boom.  I’ve got plenty to go on.  

And then the second boom.  The bigger BOOM.

I’M THE ADDICT.  I’m the powerless one.  I’m enslaved to ego.

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And I am.  I organize my life in such a way as to protect myself and those I love.  My defenses are almost always up.  My radar for right and wrong – always on.  I hide myself within a wall of self-protective mechanisms well-developed over many years.  The walls are mostly hidden to a majority of people, but some who come close enough see them and navigate with care.  My secret machinations are not public, but harmful enough.  My hiddenness deprives my closest friends and family of intimacy.  They accept what they can get, and generally its enough.  I’ve learned to provide enough…and my enough is often more than what others can give.  In that, my ego delights.    

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The war within continues…

Some might quickly come to my defense.  Some might say, “Chuck, you’re willing to look at your sin and ego!”  Can I take comfort in that?  Others would be quick to diagnose a case of self-pity or self-flagellation or self-criticism.  And so, I take time to pay attention to this inner dialogue.  (A thought: Do we usually take the time to do this amidst our frantic lives?)    

I’m stuck.  I close my laptop, unprepared for my lecture on addiction.  

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This is it.  This is the place of decision.  My resourceful self tries to convince me that I’ve got more than enough to present to class tomorrow.  I have stats.  I have examples.  I have stories.  

I could call it a night.  My eyes are heavy.

I could call it a night, after all.  I have stories.  I have stats.  And this group of students doesn’t even want to be in this class today, I think.  (Now, I judge them. They thought we were done last week.  I feel entitled to have my voice. No matter what, I’ll make them listen to my wise musings for an hour).

Even more…I have episodes of House of Cards or The Following to watch tonight.  (I briefly mourn that Breaking Bad is done.)

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How many times have I had this inner conversation?  In the many times that I’ve preached, how often have I thought – “this one is for so-and-so” or “I hope so-and-so hears this”?

I have so many examples of people I’d cite as addicts, as abusers, as men and women who hurt others.  And it’d go over well if I used them.  My self-righteous self longs to use them.

“Our (deepest) addiction is to our own ego, and through this addiction our relationship to everything else is ruined.” Wendy Farley 

I can see ego a mile away.  I can see it in tweets and Facebook updates, but more subtly in one-on-one conversations.  I can see it in progressive friends who are pretty damn sure they are right.  And with ‘justice’ on their side, they fight.  I can see it in conservative friends who cock their heads and express an attitude of ‘concern’ about truth and faithfulness.  I see it in myself and other “third-way” and “centrist” folks who are quite delighted that we walk in the narrow way of Jesus.

But, in the end, the ego exhausts us.  The ego exhausts us all.  

Brought to the place of powerlessness, we are all faced with the possibility of honesty.  And then, even our honesty can be a form of manipulation that resists that very powerlessness we’re invited to.

I find myself in this place tonight.  No answers.  No conclusion.  Tomorrow can go either way… 

Where are you? God’s first question.

Imagine the scene. Adam and Eve, anxiously anticipating the intense exhilaration of the promised high. Forbidden fruit – promising they’ll go deeper, further, higher than they have in what has become a constricting garden. Perspiring. Hearts racing.  

And then the bite. Utter darkness. Emptiness. Convicting truth, marked by a shame that fills their entire body, a physiological phenomenon that feels like a burning from within. Burning heart, face, throat. Shame-intensified Terror. 

7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’

Where are you?

What? Doesn’t God mean to say, “Get out here now! What have you done!?” Isn’t this a God like the other gods – angry warriors drooling with the blood of their enemies?  

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Where are you? 

God knew. Of course, God knew where they were. So why the question? Is God playing games with them? Rubbing in the shame? Intensifying the anxiety?

I don’t think so. No, these aren’t words of condescension. 

These are words of divine pursuit. 

In the cool of the Garden, the bright, warm heat of Presence shows, and speaks, and clothes. 

And then the consequences, of course. Exile. There are always consequences. But before the consequences, Grace. 

Those three words in Scripture show the compassion, the pursuit, the grace, and perhaps most importantly – the heart-brokenness of a God who longs for Union. In a moment’s notice, union is lost. And God’s heart breaks. Don’t forget, union is all God knows – union and communion, a dance of Father, Son, and Spirit, who in intimate and loving Tri-unity create humanity to enjoy the dance. God now knows that the dance will take much longer to perfect, that the promised marital union will be delayed (Rev. 19). And God’s heart aches.

Now, is this just a strange creation myth? Another puzzling tale told among primeval folk who – let’s face it – exist a bit lower on the evolutionary plane? 

In all probability, this was the Story told to an enslaved people called ‘Israel’. This story becomes the primary lesson for a wounded, enslaved, and terrified people surrounded by a host of foreign gods and enslaved by a Terrorist. This is the new Story, one that re-frames their stories. This is the Story to re-story a people who can’t imagine a world governed by such a Generous God. This story explains how they became exiles. But it also begins the healing process. God is Safe. God is pursuing. God wants union. 

He’s searching for us. He’s looking for you. It’s not up to you or me to find him. Wounded and ashamed, we can’t imagine anything other than a scolding, or a condemning sermon, or the “Go straight to hell” card – Do not pass go, do not collect $200. No, we are in hell – the hell of our own shame, the terrorizing inner voice which condemns us, the stark realization that we’ve broken union. And yet, with grace, and compassion, and loving pursuit, God comes searching, providing immediate comfort (Gen. 3:21) and the ultimate way out of their bind (Gen. 3:15).

Some of you reading need to hear this, right now. Some of you reading feel so utterly beyond loving, or being known, or being pursued, that you cannot hear God say, “Where are you?” Some of you have been so wounded by angry preachers or distant fathers or misguided counselors that you cannot fathom that God might be heart-broken for you.

But maybe you’ll hear a whisper of grace in these words – Where are you?  I pray you’ll see the Smile of the One who we long for in Advent, coming near, showing up, dwelling among us, and once and for all dealing with that ancient Serpent, whose voice still rings in our ears with lies that deceive.