#Ferguson: A Gospel Issue

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
-Langston Hughes

It was in my college Liberation Theology class back in 1990 that I first discovered different ‘Gospel’ perspectives – perspectives from those steeped in death and persecution, suffering and scarcity.  We spent evenings at my professors house reading and discussing Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and a host of African and Asian liberation theologians.  It may have been the first ‘aha’ moment for me, the first realization that the Gospel wasn’t just about getting saved and voting pro-life.

A next significant time came during the year I lived with Tom in the hood in Chicago.  Though I grew up on Long Island with great diversity, I was a suburban kid, mostly protected from the issues Tom grew up with.  Tom was black, and he showed me and told me how different it was for him to leave the apartment and walk down the street.  Here again, I was challenged to wrestle with whether or not the ‘Gospel’ had something to say about Tom’s everyday fear.

In the past 20 or so years, it was been those who I pastor as well as clients I’ve cared for who’ve helped me understand that my life, as a white man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife and daughters, is and will always be different…and privileged.  Even in our mostly Asian neighborhood in San Francisco, we were beloved, celebrities in a way.  I haven’t experienced the kinds of things I’ve heard described by Tom, and by many folks I’ve counseled and cared for.  I haven’t been ignored by waitresses in restaurants, targeted by suspicious law enforcement officers, followed, stared down.  I haven’t been overlooked for a job or a loan.  I’ve rarely felt altogether different.  I haven’t been labeled as “angry” or walked down the street anxiously or wondered what I should wear or how quickly I could walk or what might make me look like a criminal to another.  These have not been my worries.  But they have been Tom’s, and many, many others.

What I’ve seen is that in my privileged white world, the ‘Gospel’ is domesticated.  Ferguson is not on our radar.  I’d dare say for many white evangelicals, today is just another day.  The real scandal would be if some prominent evangelical wrote a pro-LGBTQ book, for instance.  The Gospel is tamed, reduced, narrowed.  It becomes a balm for guilt-ridden souls who crave 140-character tweets reminding us that we’re accepted, but it hardly seems applicable to what is happening in Ferguson.  And, after all, isn’t what is happening there really just about some angry black folks who’ve, once again, made a much bigger deal out of something that clearly was the result of a young black man’s aggression against a police officer?

We don’t get it, friends.  And we can’t, and won’t, until we walk a hundred miles in the shoes of someone very different than us or until our friendships reflect the diversity of society.  Statistics show, in fact, that we have the least diverse social network – 91% white, and only one-percent black.  We naively think that changes in voting rights some forty years ago solved the problem of race.  And as Christians, we become incensed at a Facebook dialogue about abortion or homosexuality, but hardly understand the fury of young black men and women in the streets last night who feel so powerless that throwing stones and burning things provide some outlet, albeit a tragic one, for a voice.  As MLK Jr said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”  But we’ll say, “You see…they are so angry.  Why do they always have to make it about race?”  I’ve heard this so much that my stomach turns and I’ve finally begun calling people out.

This leads me to the important point that Ferguson is a Gospel issue.  Yes, it’s a justice issue and a race issue.  But it’s a Gospel issue.  Now, if you have a tamed and domesticated Gospel tuned into your particular moral litmus test issues, you won’t see this.  But St. Paul did.  For St. Paul, the core of the Gospel was about reconciliation – God and sinner, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free (Gal. 3:28).  This was the necessary implication of justification by faith alone.  Justification was never simply a get out of jail free card, an individualistic guilt-appeasement balm.  Justification opens the gates to freedom, to reconciliation, to wholeness inside and out.  It puts into contact with the outsider, the person who’ll make us feel uncomfortable, the different – a sexual, racial, and geographic outsider (Acts 8), for example.  It puts us into contact these cut-off parts of ourselves.  It levels the playing field; the powerful are brought down and the powerless are brought up.  And the Gospel invitation, particularly for those of us with privilege, is to go down willingly, to be crucified with Christ, to be the ptochos – impoverished, broken, brought to the end of ourselves, dying like that grain of wheat that must fall to the ground to bear fruit.  All for the sake of the other.  We must go, as hard as it is, first to listen.  We must just begin with listening, though our souls have become so attuned to the endless political chatter and certitude of the Hannity’s and Maddow’s.

Jesus would have been in Ferguson last night.  He wouldn’t have paid a whole lot of attention to a decision on the indictment.  He knows better than any of us how “facts” can be aligned with whatever narrative is preferred.  He wouldn’t have been wearing a hat or t-shirt for a particular side.  No, I think Jesus would have been there standing alongside the family of Michael Brown, holding them, crying with them.  I think Jesus would sit with Officer Wilson, naming the fear and anxiety and anger he was feeling, and reminding him that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  I think he’d be with young men and women who went to bed confused and ashamed that they had participated in violence, looted stores, and started fires.  He’d say, “I get it.  I see the anger.  I’m not going anywhere.  Let’s talk.”

Jesus crosses the barriers.  His Gospel is not domesticated, it is invasive, courageous, pursuing.  God became man, crossing the ultimate barrier, crossing into death, going down, going further than I’d ever want to go.  But we need to, now, with courage.

Far more hinges on how we meet one another from here on out than on an indictment in Ferguson, MO.  Until my white (mostly evangelical) brothers and sisters are as impassioned by this as they are the next Rob Bell book, I don’t see much changing.  And when I say that, I’m not saying that you need to get behind an indictment but get behind your black brothers and sisters, to get into their worlds, their realities, their sufferings.  I’m saying we need to ask questions, to listen, to exercise holy curiosity.  I’m saying that we might have blindspots, might not see so clearly.  I’m saying that we really just don’t get it, at a fundamental level, and must make ourselves available for metanoia.  I’m saying that we need to knock on a black neighbor’s door and say, “I’m sorry I’ve never come by.  I’m confused by everything that is going on, and I wonder if I’m missing something.  I need your help”  We are addicts of privilege and power, and it’s time we acknowledge that we need help.

If we can be fueled by the same passion that led Jesus to cross the ultimate barrier and St. Paul to leave the nest of Jerusalem and cross barriers that left him imprisoned and reviled and ultimately murdered himself, perhaps then we will see the Good News through Isaiah’s eyes:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 The effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isa. 32)

I pray for peaceful habitation, for quiet and secure dwellings in Ferguson today.

the problem with loving god, but not loving yourself… (pastors and theological eggheads, take note!)

Love yourself.  It’s championed as the pathway to happiness and gratitude by some and scoffed at as the pathway to narcissism and godlessness by others.

But check this out.  Bernard of Clarivaux, the towering 12th century Cisterian abbot, advisor to the Pope, mystical writer, and one of the most significant voices in church history sees four stages of growth and maturation for Christians.  Just wait for what comes last…images

  1. “Love of Self for One’s Own Sake.” This is where we all begin…trying to make life happen on our own.  We try to give ourselves the love we need.  We try to find it in a thousand other substitutes.  But we blow it.  We stumble and fail and sabotage our happiness.  This kind of self-love is ultimately self-sabotaging.
  2. “Love of God for One’s Own Sake.” Much like the first step in AA, we admit we’re powerless.  Our acknowledgment opens us up to a relationship with God, but this stage is much like a child relying on a parent for help.  We go to God for the help we need, but we don’t yet know God intimately or experience union in any kind of deep way.
  3. “The Love of God for God’s Sake.” In this stage, we turn our attention to God.  In fact, we may talk much more about being God-centered.  I’ve lived much of my life here as a good “Reformed” boy.  Finding Reformed theology was like a second grace, and I devoured books about God’s character.  I kept saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about GOD!” We might even become a bit arrogant, and dismiss any talk of self-love as a sinful remnant of the past.  Our focus on God is an important development in our maturity, but if we get stuck here we’ll miss out on the promised union.
  4. “Love of One’s Self for God’s Sake.” Here we discover we’ve been created for intimacy.  God turns the tables on us.  He shows us how delightful we are. He convinces us that we’re worth getting to know.  We discover we’re loved and loveable. We learn intimacy, surrender, and enjoy contemplative union.  We actually get to know God in a far more personal and intimate way.

Are you on this particular journey to self-love?  For many of us theological egg-heads, the last movement might be the most critical.  It may also be the most frightening.  Because, as I’ve gotten to know myself and many of you, we’ve focused on God precisely because we didn’t like ourselves.  We found a theology that told us how bad we are.  And, it even helped a bit with our deep sense of shame and guilt.  But we find ourselves constantly returning to our old, dry wells.  Our God-focus, though it helps at times, doesn’t make our addictions go away, doesn’t curtail our sometimes scary anger, doesn’t necessarily lead to humility.

Take heart.  Bernard says, “God wants you to stop, to relax, to allow yourself to be embraced. He’s smiling at you.  Yes you.  He actually thinks you are worth loving, worth knowing.  And he won’t stop telling you how much he adores you.”

This isn’t hyper-therapeutic, new-agey spirituality.  This is ancient wisdom for hungry and thirsty souls.

Shame and Grace in the Pastor’s Life

The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.  Sad to say, the people who seem to lose touch with themselves and with God most conspicuously are of all things, ministers. Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir

A friend emailed the other day with a tragic story of a pastor-friend whose recent affair has blown up his family.  In my world, this is an everyday occurrence, and one I can become numb to until it hits home, even closer – to a friend, to a student, to myself.  And then I’m pummeled again with the reality that I’m human, you’re human, we’re human.  We’re fragile.  We’re afraid.  We’re ashamed.

But are we allowed to be?  To be sure, one of the characteristics of most pastors I know is a highly-honed and well-developed Inner Critic which will not allow him or her to fail.  Let’s not be naive – we get into this profession because we’re prone to want to perfect others, and this is part-and-parcel of our own perfectionism.  Few pastors I know are immune to shame and guilt, and they’re on the sociopath spectrum.  So, let’s acknowledge first that we’re really hard on ourselves.  We work hard to please, to perform, to compartmentalize every seemingly unacceptable part of ourselves.

But let’s take it an (honest) step further – we’re not allowed to be human.  Few of us will keep our jobs is we dare say what we secretly think, feel, and do.  As Wayne and Hands say in Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy, most pastors hide behind the masks of hero or clown.  The hero will always come through.  The clown will always make people feel good.  And with good reason.  People want our personas.

To do what we do, we need to cut ourselves off from our hearts, from our stories.  That surge of anxiety or emptiness that emerges from deep within as we’re reading Scripture before our sermons – well, stuff it back down.  Don’t dare bring it up, then, there, anywhere.  Or, if you do (like, with a therapist, perhaps), make sure you couch it in the most optimistic way – “This doesn’t happen very much…I mean, I’m really pretty stable, but every so often…”

We do everything we can to transcend our humanity.  Though we may say, “Gospel, gospel, gospel,” we live far from “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And so we perpetuate Adam’s first sin.  Instead of embracing our humble human estate, we feel shame at it, and compensate.  Rather than listening to our aching bodies and souls, we reject them in favor of the glittering, always-on persona.

The Catholic theologian Johannes Baptist Metz offers us a way back home, to our bodies, to ourselves:

Understood correctly, our love for ourselves, our “yes” to our self, may be regarded as the “categorical imperative” of the Christian faith: You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself! Our self-acceptance is the basis of the Christian creed. Assent to God starts in our sincere assent to ourselves, just as sinful flight from God starts in our flight from ourselves.

Could we be ok being human?  With whatever that entails?

It’s really hard for me.  Lately, I’ve been off.  Just off.  I traveled a lot, speaking here and there.  I felt present and whole for a while, and then I started getting tired, and anxious, and disconnected.  I went into a kind of survival mode to survive it.  I remember the night this started.  I was in a Chicago hotel bar having missed a flight to a gig I was supposed to do.  Part of me was grateful to have a respite from being ‘on’.  I drank a few too many martini’s, ate a crappy meal, and woke up feeling worse the next morning.  Headache.  Nauseous.  I raced to the airport to get my break-of-dawn make-up flight only to realize it was cancelled.  I sat in O’Hare, almost incapable of self-care or self-reflection.  I simmered in anger, anxiety, and nausea.

For the next few weeks, I did my best to survive – to give decent talks, to be present to people, to fulfill my obligations.  A friend of mine talks about performance in baseball language.  I wasn’t swinging and missing, but I was hitting singles and doubles.  My Inner Critic was mad at me.  I wasn’t ok with this.  But even in regular times of quiet and contemplative space, I couldn’t get beyond the war between my Inner Critic was waging inside.  And so, I continued to feel worse – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

In these times I feel powerless to stop the inner torrent of shame.  Do you?  Am I alone in this?  The onslaught of people dependent on me (including my family) didn’t allow me much space to listen, to sit, to be.  I brought my anxious, scattered self on a trip to Europe with my family, and it jolted and jerked within in a way that left me tired, restless, anxious, angry, and resentful.

All throughout, the deeper voice within – God’s voice – kept saying, “So what?  You’re human.  It’s ok.  Your talk stunk.  Your failure to get back to people promptly disappoints.  Your anxiety feels horrible.  OK.  So, there you go.  You’re not superhuman.”

Can we listen to that still, small voice within whispering grace?  Can I?  Can you hear that voice, or is the noise too loud?

And even more, is there a limit on our grace – to ourselves, to others?  Because, believe me, pastors feel that there is a limit.  Perhaps we can tell you about a struggle with wanting the nice car our neighbor has.  Perhaps we might even admit an occasional battle with generalized “lust.”  And nowadays, we’ve developed a whole ‘gospel’ language that allows for general self-disclosure – “I’ve found my esteem in man and not God.”  But let’s be clear, here:  This does absolutely nothing at the soul level, and may only endear us to those who say, “Oh, our pastor is soooo honest.”

Is there a limit?  Can we say more?

Are there places where we can name the constant, burdening anxiety that drives us to drink too much?

Are there places where we can name the terrorizing rage we feel within at certain people?

…the emptiness we feel when we preach?

…the chasm between us and our spouse, which prompts us to wonder if we could get divorced and still remain in our position?

…the online chatrooms and peepshows and porn?

…the personal financial crisis we’re having as we cast vision for our church’s fiscal health?

…the health issues which seems to arise from our constant anxiety?

…the powerlessness and subsequent rage of being overlooked as a woman in ministry, or racial or ethnic minority?

…the secret you’ve kept despite being married, about being gay, about being in love with your best friend?

…the suicidal plans you’ve dreamed up as an escape from the prison of your life and ministry?

…the feeling of utter incompetence in your role?

…the loneliness?

Can we bring these things to our leadership team?  Our elders?  The church planting committee?

Most pastors I know would offer a resounding NO.  It’s not safe.  It’s not ok.  And so we hide.  And if and when something comes out that reveals our hiddenness – an indiscretion, a scandal – we’re targeted with people’s anger and disappointment.  I know few leaders in these situations who have said, “My church leadership actually came to me and said that they feel somewhat responsible for cultivating an atmosphere where I couldn’t be honest.”

So…finally… are we being thoughtfully and wisely preventative as churches?  Let me offer a few thoughts.

- Does your church leadership have a open-door, no-judgment policy for your pastors if she or he ever needs to come clean?  (This does not mean no consequences…but it does mean a safe, non-judgmental place where the pastor can be heard.)  Will counseling be paid for?  Is therapy even ok?

- Do you have a regular sabbatical plan?  Do pastors expect to have the church’s support to get away every 5-7 years with the blessing of the church and with some financial help, as well?

- Is there attention given to the daily rhythms of pastoral life, with ample time away for solitude, with the phone and email off?  Is this ok?  Or will it be perceived as lazy by the church and its leadership?

- Is there a process or people who can give feedback when they sense the pastor is not very present, or angry, or anxious, or checked out, or too busy?

- Is there an expectation that the pastor is connected to another pastor, a spiritual direction, a coach, and/or a therapist…and is there ongoing attention paid to how that conversation is going?

- Is there an atmosphere where the relational strategies (for good or ill) of the pastor and leadership can be talked about, owned, acknowledged, and spoken about with candor and grace?

As Buechner says, there are moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.

May we be attentive to these moments, as disruptive as they are.  May we see the moments when we’re humbled, humiliated, and HUMAN as sources of life and depth and as opportunities to be known, and not as moments to run from.  God give us grace for this hard road.

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.”