How I discovered grace in a different 16 century Reformation – http://ow.ly/20N3nG – ( a guest blog for @peteenns )
God made human beings both for being and becoming, for loving and for creating, for contemplation and for action. Or, as my New Testament professor once taught, we live in the tension between the indicative and the imperative – being and doing.
But unless we first address the being question – the question of identity – we’ll always be prone to become enslaved to the doing, to the achievement, to the tyranny of the gotta-prove-myself ‘ego’.
Those who know me know that I’m prone to do and to to go. I’m convinced that we’ve been made for mission. I’ve been influenced by Lesslie Newbigin, and the missional movement that he inadvertently inspired. I’ve produced. I’ve burned the candle at both ends for the sake of the Kingdom. And I will be the first to challenge the young seminarian to sacrifice. And yet, many pastors – like me – get into their late 30′s and 40′s and realize that there must be something more.
With some honest self-assessment, we recognize the addiction to action, to achievement, to recognition. We recognize the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in ministry. Our eyes are opened to the pecking order of influence. We measure ourselves by converts, or attendees, or twitter followers, or book sales, or brand recognition, or devoted followers. But I, and many others, also recognize something else.
This, too, doesn’t satisfy.
Because our ego is incessantly demanding and needy, no measure of influence will satisfy.
What demands your allegiance? What enslaves you? What dominates your ego-attention?
There is often a great cost to abandoning your ego-needs.
People will always question your decisions. I know a pastor who recently left a large congregation to start a new one, with many who questioned why he’d leave his followers, his paycheck, his home, his comfort. The life of sacrifice, in fact, may not be the life of activistic influence with devoted followers. In fact, it may be sacrificing your ego for the sake of a new time of simply being, or a new season of re-directed action. It’s not so much what you do – it’s how you recognize the power of your ‘ego’, and seek to die to its power.
This is what St. Paul meant when he talked about “death to self” and being “united with Christ.” Sacrifice is not action for action’s sake. Death to self is death to the ego that enslaves you. It requires you to leave whatever ‘Egypt’ has gained influence and power in your life, to navigate the long and hard wilderness road of humility, maturity, and renewed purpose. This is the way of the Cross, which leads to Resurrection power…and never, ever ‘ego’ power.
“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ” Frederick Buechner
Let me offer 7 reasons why it’s important for us to be both story-tellers and story-listeners, 7 “identity-markers” for a Storied people beginning with “We Are…”:
1. We are Hardwired for Story - Curt Thompson writes, “the process of reflecting on and telling others your story, and the way you experience others hearing it, actually shapes the story and the very neural correlates, or networks, it represents.” In other words, we thrive when we listen and tell. Without it, we settle for a life of reactivity, not reflection – stuck in our reptillian brain, disconnected from both of neo-cortical brain and from other human beings. Simply put, Story is healthy.
2. We are Meaning-Makers – For millennia, telling and listening to stories was the fundamental building block of civilization, the way of passing along tradition and family tales and myths. It was a kind of social glue. Today, our meaning-making happens in radically different, and often compartmentalized ways – seeing a therapist, connecting with an old friend on Facebook, attending church (often infrequently, and in churches where the Christian story isn’t necessarily told and practiced each week), gathering data piecemeal from Google searches, a quick coffee with a friend. Busyness has robbed us of time. Individualism has robbed us of community rituals. Consumerism has redefined our purpose. Story can set it straight.
3. We are Honest – Story-telling requires honesty. I have told my own story in highly edited ways, often trying to cast myself in the best possible light. Eventually, the truth will get you. In the recent political conventions, I heard both sides speak frequently of American exceptionalism, and I could not help but wonder if we’ve taken our own American community-story seriously, with all its good and bad – Selfless heroism and slavery, gracious giving and genocide, beauty and brokenness. Even America has a story…and the point is that there is no shame in telling the truth. The shame is in the radical editing for the sake of glossing over the hard times, the failures, the suffering, and the errors.
4. We are wounded – Telling our stories heals us. We’ve seen that it heals the brain. But consider this. After the Rwandan genocide, there were many therapists who visited Rwanda with new techniques for healing – quick fixes for the damaged and abused human soul. What did psychologists and theologians eventually find? No new techniques seemed to help. But old-fashioned, group story-telling seemed to heal wounds. As Rwandan men and women sat together and told of their sons and daughters, of rapes and ravaging, healing and forgiveness took place.
5. We are storied/historical beings, not Gnostics - I give credit to Eugene Peterson for this one, as his writings on Lament reminded me that what is grieved in that ancient biblical book is actual suffering. You see, we don’t live in a vacuum. Modern enlightened guru’s speak of living in the eternal now, and I understand the value of living in the present moment. But Judeo-Christian religion is storied. We are not Gnostics. We believe in actual events, real and felt. This is why I feel the most orthodox Christians ought to be the most Storied of them all – rooted in narrative, God’s and ours – mindful of the need to remember…
6. We are liturgical - In historic Christian worship, we come together to rehearse the Story. In Confession and Assurance, in the Sermon and the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction, the whole Story is told – the story of original goodness invaded by sin, the story of dignity and depravity, of hunger and thirst, of blessing and mission. Worship, at its best, is NOT an Oxytocin high, a praise-song-feel-good-love-fest, but an intentional engagement with God as his loving, desiring, obeying, hoping creatures, longing to be re-Storyed and re-branded in the Great Story told each week…
7. We are commanded - I can’t help but return to the frequent admonitions to Remember…
It seems that over and again in Scripture, God’s rescued people are told to remember. The Israelites are commanded to remember the great rescue from Egypt. The exiles are told to remember God’s faithfulness. Christians are given the Eucharistic meal as a meal of remembrance. It seems telling and listening is a kind of corporate remembering for Christians in worship.
And this is why I’m both a therapist and a pastor. Because, I’m in the business of the telling, the listening, the remembering. I’m called to invite people out of their hurried lives into an intentionally reflective space, where God can show.
And this is why I think it’s so important that you remember. Listen, quick-fixes are available all over today, in religious forms, in medicine, in self-help books, in internet and TV gurus. But the unhurried process of telling and listening invites us into a kind of sacred cadence, a rhythm that can reform our hearts, and even rewire our brains. Science and faith agree – Story is central. We tell stories in order to live, as Joan Didion says.
Tell and listen as if your life depended on it.
In fact, for the past 12 summers or so, I’ve drowned myself in the mystics, sitting at the feet of St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Reformed mystics such as the a’ Brakel’s, or Thomas Merton. This summer, I’ve been spending time learning from Rainer Maria Rilke, Meister Eckhart, more of Merton, and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr. Rohr, perhaps more intentionally than any other, has connected for me the inseparable marriage between the contemplative and the active, between mysticism and social justice, between meditation and mission.
This ‘marriage’ is perhaps more important today than in any other day. It’s no surprise to people who know me that I believe Lesslie Newbigin is the most important missional visionary in the past 100 years. A prophet of sorts, Newbigin returned from his work as a missionary in India to become a vocal spokesperson for Western culture’s unsettling entanglement with the Gospel. A strong ecumenical voice, Newbigin could see through the polarizations of his day, and cast a new vision, a kind of ‘third way’ as some call it, which would unite divided Christians.
Yet, the psychologist in me sees a man comfortable with tension and paradox, a man able to see-through and see-beyond, a rare gift. Indeed, it’s the gift of contemplatives. Newbigin’s affection for the overall narrative of Scripture, and our mysterious participation in it by and through the Spirit, makes me certain he had mystic sensibilities, even if they were not realized in classic ways. And the centrality of Christ, and union in Christ for Newbigin, leads me to believe that living in India allowed him to break out of the slavery of modernist rationalism, and to see with new spiritual eyes.
Let me explain how this impacts us. Until recently, we lived in a Christendom reality…a world in which Christianity was fused, sometimes in indistinguishable ways, with medieval, Renaissance, and modernist worldviews. We’re emerging from a long marriage to Western modernism, rationalism, and individualism, with values that are as entrenched and unquestioned as the 10 Commandments. Indeed, the ‘emergence’ from this most recent version of Christendom leaves many alarmed, warning of the end of Christian culture, and for some an almost certain sign of the end times. Instead, I believe we’re living in a time full of possibility, a time much like that which the early church experienced, rich in contemplative and missional ways, inviting us to “follow Christ” more simply, humbly, and vibrantly.
This is because missional engagement requires a kind of contemplative stance – comfort with paradox, radical dependence on a living and active Spirit, a unitive theology and spirituality. When we’re engaged deeply in mission, we lack time or energy for the typical culture wars, the maddening polarizations, the rationalist nit-picking. Indeed, because contemplation majors on ‘being’ rather than ‘thinking’ (a modernistic idol), one is called to be deeply rooted in God, known by God, in union and communion. Real presence with God means real presence to others, and this constitutes mission, as we embody Christ in the world. (read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, for a real, early church example of this.)
I’m encouraged by the level of interest and excitement around mission that I’ve seen, particularly over the past 15 years or so. However, mission can become empty activism without contemplative depth. Or, in another way, it can become a tool for a bully pulpit in the form of a kind of ‘missional rationalism’ without contemplative depth.
Mission requires we sink deeply into God, rooted so firmly that we can live freely and lovingly no matter where we are. With that in mind, I’ll be sharing more on this in upcoming blogs, particularly as I introduce you to some of my favorite contemplatives…
There is no rescue without suffering, no transformation without a wilderness, no kingdom without a cross.
This difficult message, more often than not, is rejected by Christians, not by skeptics. Skeptics, in fact, are strangely attracted to the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus draped in the American flag or the Jesus whose message apparently sells self-help, victorious-Christian-life books. No, skeptics are suspicious of this Jesus, and rightly so. Rather, it is us – Christians – who are more apt to embrace a kingdom without a cross.
Somehow, we’ve come to believe that since Jesus ventured into the wilderness and suffered, even to the point of death, that we don’t have to. Many of us live with a sense of entitlement – religious entitlement (if I live by faith, my life should be successful), economic entitlement (want to offend someone? – tell them their taxes are being raised!), political entitlement (supposing the world is going to hell in a handbasket if supposed ‘Christian’ policies on the left or right are not embraced), social entitlement (our desperately codependent need to be connected all the time), and psychological entitlement (my parents shouldn’t have failed me).
I saw so much of this on display over the past week during the healthcare debate, which seemed to draw out every angry, embittered, idealistic emotion our culture corporately carries. On the one side, evangelical friends were outraged that they’d be forced to be inconvenienced (taxed!) for the sake of others, or at least this was my take. On the other, those on left seemed, once again, convinced that real community and care could be somehow mandated by law. I struggled to see the Gospel in any of it, in the sense that I didn’t see an honest wrestling with what it looks like, as a society, to come together wisely to care for the least of these – bringing in the kingdom through the cross of personal suffering and inconvenience for the sake of the other. Let me assure you – sprinkling a little Jesus on Ayn Rand or Karl Marx does not make for a cruciform kingdom…
…which leads me to wonder – will we, Christians, need to suffer more to see that becoming followers of Jesus requires crucifixion? Our confidence in changing and transforming the world politically – whether you’re on the left or the right – is false security. It is an idol that will break in a thousand pieces. And I say this no matter the method. I tell my clients – those who think psychology will make it all better – that good psychology only leads you more deeply into the wilderness in order to meet God. The idol of optimistic self-help will also explode. Moreover, the confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing Market may be our biggest idol. Thomas Hobbes warned John Locke that the humanistic belief in well-intentioned, altruistic people was nonsense, and would come back to bite us. His prophecy was too true. What the market has produced is wealth for some, to be sure…and many cultural goods. But it has also produced a thriving porn industry which degrades young women, the idolization of image, obsession with people’s tragic lives on reality television, the false belief in the 2000s that middle-class families could actually afford 2000 sq foot homes, psychological dependence on each new technology, the collective narcissistic false self of the American, a growing psychological sense that we deserve more and more, the militarization and economization of ‘security’, the church as “small business” in competition with others, the professionalization of the clergy, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the collective narcissistic image of success.
I believe in the paschal mystery – the path of life through death patterned in Jesus – and this leads me to wonder, at times, if we might not need to face a cultural death in order to experience real life and revival. We, Christians, may be most in need of this humiliation, and perhaps ought to pray for it. We seem to excel in hard times. I was reminded by a white South African friend again recently how black Christians in Africa led the call to forgiveness and reconciliation for those who systematically abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even raped them. May we suffer so as to learn forgiveness like this.
As an election season heats up, we’d do well to extricate ourselves from the back-and-forth which is so enticing and addictive, as if a Supreme Court opinion or an election can save us from our desperately entitled, narcissistic selves. This is my own spiritual discipline in this season – God help me. I will be asking myself – what is the way of the Cross? What false securities have I embraced? But watch out what you pray for. That which we hold to, cling to, attach our identity to may be taken from us – our business, our secure portfolio, our reputation, our idealism.
And may God’s peaceable kingdom emerge amidst the rubble in a way that skeptics might see Jesus in us, instead of despite us…
Some pastors have been asking me to blog a bit on my thoughts re: complementarianism, egalitarianism, male/female roles, why it’s become such a polarizing topic, and perhaps even why it’s become a new litmus test of fidelity to the Gospel. I’m hesitant to address such a big subject. It’s so polarizing. And it’s sad to me. I find myself sinking into a depression when I consider some of nonsense that goes on, and how it divides a church that ought to be a witness in its unity. But, here are some thoughts. I’ll be highlighting some themes I think are worth considering. Below are some of the questions I get, and some of the responses I’ve given through email exchanges, etc. It’s a longer post, but broken into smaller chunks of Q & A.
Why do you think churches are losing men? And don’t you believe that men are returning to some churches because they are re-asserting a man’s proper authority in the church?
I’m no church historian and I’ve heard this case made, but I have a very different take. I think the early church was filled with courageous men who saw in Jesus the way of real manhood, for lack of a better way of saying it, the way of masculine vulnerability. Now, some men ran for the hills. This wasn’t the militant Divine Warrior they expected. It was the need for power and authority that got them in trouble! Look at Peter – he needed it too much. So, Jesus defined the terms in John 21 for him – when you’re young, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but as you mature you’ll realize your vulnerability and dependence. Men left the church because they no longer had this grand vision of cruciform risk-taking and suffering servanthood for the sake of witness to the way of Christ in the world to live into. I assume this began post-Constantine, when they gained power. Now, this attracted a certain kind of man, but I wouldn’t call this man “Christ-like.” Power and authority became way too important to the post-Constantinian church leader. And I think it is way too important for some male pastors today, to the point that it’s really destroying the witness of the church to a crucified God and a cruciform, self-sacrificial people. We’re obsessed with debates about power and authority! How sad! Jesus was never about claiming position, but relinquished position to meet people “from below” – from a place of servanthood and vulnerability.
If real masculinity isn’t the issue, why do so many men flock to John Eldredge books, or Christian men’s conferences, or churches with hardline positions on male roles?
I definitely think masculinity is an important issue, and I’m not wanting to blur male/female distinctions for some asexual theology. Now, I think men are hungry for some sort of vision for their lives. We’ve largely lost the male initiatory traditions in the West, where men were sent out at an appropriate age into the wilderness to learn key things – that they’re vulnerable, that failure is inevitable, that the world is bigger than them, that they’ll need to plug into a larger source for real strength! Sadly, men today are hungry for strength, but find a substitute in power/authority. Eldredge got this much right. In Wild at Heart, he tapped into this primal hunger. But he didn’t build the narrative around Jesus, I’d say. In my mind, the focus became on finding your “wild” self…a necessary part of the journey…but not enough. Maybe I missing Eldredge on this…I haven’t read the entire Eldredge “canon.” I’d reframe it by saying that ultimately, we “find ourselves” as our lives become caught up in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus…as the paschal mystery is formed inside of us. And while I think you can find get a taste of this as you escape into solitude in wild places, more often than not we find it in the wild, risky world of relationship – where we’re compelled to deal with our own hearts.
I don’t hear this cruciform message in the Christian male pep talks today. I see a lot of testosterone energy, but not as much Jesus. There is too much chatter about finding yourself in your proper male headship (back to authority and power again!), as if headship (kephale) is about claiming power. It’s precisely about sacrificing, suffering, relinquishing. Dictators claim power. Jesus relinquished it. But we worship Jesus…not because he claimed it and demanded it, but because he served us, suffered for us, chose the way down. Always be wary of pastors, male or female, who over-speak about authority, who don’t seem secure enough to be insecure (as Richard Rohr says), who need to “defend” the rightness of their positions. You’ll know them by their love, not their defense of authority.
The older I get, the more I want to give away power, the less I want or need to be up front, the more I’m hesitant to write blogs like this. I just want to be out doing it, living it, loving…that’s where I’m at my most “cruciform” self. All the rest is usually my false self, my egocentric need to feel powerful, to be listened to, to be needed. God help me.
How do you understand the proper roles of men and women?
First, I think the question is problematic. My best sense is that the idea of “roles” is relatively new in the theological landscape (and in mid-20th century), and that role language is actually rooted in bad Trinitarian theology (the heresy of eternal subordinationism). But my bigger concern is that roles become a conversation of who leads and who doesn’t, who can speak and who can’t, who has authority and who doesn’t. It’s an exercise in missing the point. This was never the agenda of Jesus. He ticked off the religious “authorities” (always be careful when he hear that word!) precisely because he empowered the powerless – women, outsiders, the broken. I think we’ve completely misread Paul on this stuff. We’ve missed how he empowered women in the early church too, and we’ve focused on a few “exceptions” that served, I believe, as pastoral advice for specific temporal situations. How are we different than the Pharisees on this? We’ve missed the forest for the trees. We’ve somehow come to believe that it’s “biblical faithfulness” to put women in their place when Jesus came freeing women, empowering outsiders. I see a parallel in all our talk about the heretics “out there” – the Muslims, the Mormons, the liberals. How have we come this far? Men don’t need to be worried about their roles. We need to be concerned about whether or not we’re living the cruciform life of Jesus, suffering and serving. When this becomes about ra-ra “be-a-man” spirituality, the church has lost its witness, and the world laughs at us (and I think they ought to…)
What guidance do you give men who need a vision for their lives?
This is tough, because we’ve largely lost the initiatory tradition. We’ve even turned baptism into a sweet ceremony instead of a very somber “death” ceremony (we go down into the waters in order to die, and we’re raised through Jesus). Classically, men needed the initiation precisely because they were in the one-up position, always prone to abuse power. The wise tribal elders knew that the boy needed to leave home (sound like Jesus? You must leave home…mother, brother, sister) and enter the wilderness, in order to discover just how small you are. The Israelites took this journey. Jesus took it. But today, we’re creating narcissistic young boys who don’t know their limitations, their smallness in God’s big world. They feel power as they play video games, watch UFC fights, and get told, “You can do anything and be anything you want when you grow up.” It’s deadly. Young men have no other path than to become angry, violent. They don’t know what to do with their strength. I see it all the time in therapy. Somehow, we’ve got to find ways to invite young men into the larger story of the Gospel, the suffering servant, the way of the Cross. We need to find meaningful ways of showing them their smallness, their vulnerability, the inevitability of failure, or else they’ll find out the hard way when they get older. By the way, I’m convinced this is why “Gospel language” is so prevalent today. We’re dying for someone to tell us we don’t need to perform, that we can fail, that the story doesn’t revolve around us. But this is a message that needs solid and meaningful rituals around it. If we can re-discover the power of the sacraments and tell this story well, maybe that’s a start.
I heard an interview with a struggling baseball player the other day. The radio personality interviewing him said, “It must be tough right now.” The player said, “It’s always tough. We work in a profession where succeeding 3 out of every 10 times is success. We’ve got to learn to deal with frequent failure.”
The player was cut from his team a week later.
Former Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent once said, “Baseball teaches us… how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often — those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”
It’s the strange paradox of Christianity that we, at times, take ourselves so terribly seriously while believing ourselves to be so terribly sinful. To be sure, we ought strive like athletes reaching toward the goal, as St. Paul often says. Yet, we’ll often stumble and fall. John Calvin, who took life and theology very seriously, reminds us this is so, saying that each of us strive to “the measure of his puny capacity,” not despairing at “the slightness of our success.”
Why are we Christians so obsessed with our successes? It’s as if it’s all up to us, despite the fact that our theology tells us it isn’t so. Again, there’s no shame in trying. However, sometimes we’ve got to get over ourselves before our trying and striving become redemptive and helpful. Sometimes, our striving gets in the way of our own ‘salvation’, as the poet Mary Oliver writes. We hear the many needy voices around us, and feel the world’s redemption is dependent on us. “Mend our lives,” the voices around us cry. The world shouts to us with its needs. But sometimes we’re not healthy enough to help. Sometimes, our helping is more a reflection of our deep distraction from God rather than our deep consecration in Him.
And, if we’re fortunate, we awake to this reality when we’re younger rather than older, when the damage we’ve done is less than it could have been, and when we realize that our successes are not so much a product of our expertise as much as God’s providence in using our “puny capacities,” as Calvin said, for something we couldn’t imagine. And then, a poet like Mary Oliver bowls us over with her extraordinary truth, a truth gleaned from her observation of the theater of God’s glory and his people’s stumblings, as she writes
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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.
Mary Oliver, The Journey
And, we realize that we’re the ones drowning. Enamored with our supposed successes, we’ve been the one in a slump, swinging and missing over and again in the game that really counts. Perhaps, we’ve been selling posters and signing autographs. But, we’ve used this as a distraction, too afraid to look at our own-the-field failures.
In this game, though, God doesn’t cut players. It’s the only game in town where this is so. You’ve been listening to other voices which are not your own, and he knows it. And so he invites you to listen to the voice that you recognize as your own, the voice that will keep you company as you strive deeper and deeper into the world. There is not retreat for the stumbling Christian. Only redemption. And so, he says walk on. Play on.
And perhaps, in time, you’ll recognize that the “voice you recognize as your own” is, indeed, his voice, which speaks when you are most authentically you, his beloved child.
In just the past month, I’ve spoken with three depressed pastors. Consider this startling data from Barna, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:
- Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
- Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
- Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
- Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
- Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
- Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
- Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
Now, while there is much to talk about here, my interest right now is depression. It’s often when pastors hit their early to mid-30′s that they report some form of depression, described with words like “tired,” “discouraged,” “fatigued,” “burned out,” “unmotivated,” and more. Some wonder if they’ve ‘lost’ their call to ministry. Others share feelings of suicide, temptations to act out sexually, or a desire to quit ministry altogether.
While I do believe some form of clinical depression may be at work, I’m also quite convinced that the 16th century mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have something to say too. Seeing many of these same symptoms, what John and Teresa found was that something deeper was going on, a phenomenon John called “the dark night of the soul.”
I saw this recently in a 38 year-old pastor who called me for advice. His church wasn’t growing. His praying lacked passion. Previously helpful spiritual practices no longer delivered. And growing temptations to look at pornography or lose himself in Fantasy Football were worrying him and his wife. Feeling inept and despairing, he wondered if he’d hit a ministry wall. I told him that I sensed an extraordinary moment of grace and growth.
As I often do, I told him that he needed to see a psychologist to talk about medications and to evaluate therapeutic issues. While St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila first envisioned the dark night with both its purgative and illuminative spiritual qualities, they were by no means dualists who discounted psychological difficulty. Though they did not have modern categories or insights, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day, and ours. St. John specifically counseled men and women that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night. For him, it wasn’t an either/or, but more often a both/and. The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.
One lesson we learn from the sixteenth century Spanish mystics is that moments like the one the pastor experienced are not problems, but opportunities. This may be the key distinction, one that moves us beyond the question “How do we fix this?” to the question “What might I learn in this?”
In our North American context, failure and struggle is often viewed as a problem, a jagged detour on what is supposed to be the straight road of life. It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, but one that subtlety impacts our Christian perceptions. Thus, pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it.
When that pastor called me, he was worried for himself, for his family, and for a congregation that expected him to be ‘on’ each week. As I listened, it was clear he’d benefit from some therapy. He had never explored his family-of-origin before, and a few questions showed that Dad’s high expectations manifested in self-criticism and a fear of failure. That was clear enough. But was his issue a family-of-origin problem to be fixed?
St. John of the Cross would say No. And I’d agree. Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues. And what we call difficulty or failure or even “issues” afford us moments of awakening. I suspect St. John would see this pastor’s prayer difficulty, or his lack of passion, and even his pull toward pornography as signs of the dark night. The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken in us a much more simple desire for intimacy with God. And what I find in my work is that time and again, pastors tell me that they’d just like to know God…more purely, more simply…beyond the complexities we create as the neurotic men and women we are.
What we often find through this process is that we’re stripped of what we thought God to be – our theological certainties, our moralistic practices, our emotional highs – and drawn into a more pure, simple, and substantial intimacy. However, pastors who fail to see this opportunity often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair. It doesn’t work.
However, if we’re willing to listen in to our lives a bit more closely, we might find that God is looking for us, even in our darker moments. The mystics were convinced God works even when we’re asleep. And if we’re ready and willing, we may even awake to the dawn’s fresh light, more convinced than ever that God speaks not only in our successes, but even in our difficulties.
A personal theme for the past 2 years or so has been living with wholeheartedness. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably noticed the theme coming up time and again in different contexts. The launching point for it, of course, has been David Whyte’s excellent thought that “the antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness.”
This is always challenged in practice, however. So, as I prepared to vacation this summer, I was thinking about how getting away might impact me. Would I find myself, as I typically have, depressed on the last day of vacation? Might I find that I really didn’t rest as I had hoped to? Would my vacation be a long-awaited respite only to bring dread as the end approached?
I’m delighted to say that I’m back, refreshed, and rested. But I’m also delighted to say that I didn’t crave this vacation like I have in the past. Nor, did I dread its end. In fact, many things were different. Here are a few reflections:
First, I’ve tried to live with more of a sense of presence and wholeness daily, rather than working busily and exhaustingly up until that ‘salvation’ called vacation. Strangely, on the day we left, I told my wife that I really wasn’t excited to go, that living in the present felt so good that I was a bit afraid to lose this sense of presence in the busyness of our packed two weeks of activity.
Second, I didn’t take 10 books on this trip, hoping to read what I hadn’t gotten to in my busyness. Rather, I had only the books that sat on my iPad Kindle, which were opened just a few times. My goal was to stay connected, to God, to my own heart, to my wife, and to my kids.
Third, I prepared well in advance not to run away. In other words, when you live without wholeheartedness, as divided and fragmented and ‘not yourself’, you can’t help but want to get away to ‘find yourself.’ No doubt, rest and solitude is necessary, and aids this process. But everyday American life affords little opportunity for real, daily solitude, especially for those of us with children. Therefore, I wanted to live more wholly daily, mindful of the fact that it would mean that I had to confront my patterns of escape, numbing, and coping which have stifled me spiritually and relationally over the years. Preparation helped me to live more wholly throughout the year, enabling me to leave for vacation rested already, in one sense, and able to really enjoy the time with others.
Finally, I found that living this way was not merely self-help. This has enabled me to live more missionally, more mindful of others and more engaged with my family, my neighbors, and my world. When I live a fragmented existence (busily working to achieve, to gain approval, to meet demands, to avoid my own issues), I live disconnected from others. Paradoxically, the need to meet everyone else’s needs disconnects me from those who I am called to love and serve.
This experiment in wholeness has been fruitful, particularly over the past two years or so. It’s an oasis in the desert, but I’m also aware of my own propensity to manufacture disaster in my own life, amounting to even more fragmentation, self-sabotage, and more. I pray for God’s grace to continue in the way of wholeness, knowing that I can be extraordinarily creative at practicing dividedness, as well.
At some point in life all of us, no matter our vocation, feel as if we’re frauds.
It often emerges as a battle to be an authentic human being. By authentic, I mean wholehearted, integral, one. And it’s precisely when we feel unable to be ourselves, fully ourselves, in our work, in a relationships, or even in our prayers, that we feel fraudulent.
I often feel as if I’m most myself in the counseling room. It’s there where I can connect to others in a way that ‘public’ life rarely affords. It’s behind the closed doors of my office where pretense and politeness dissipate. The roughest sessions, of course, occur when pretense is confronted head on. Some part of us resists being known, and therefore becoming whole. We all know this inner battle. It’s an everyday battle for even the greatest saints.
People who know me know that I return over and again to the theme of wholeheartedness. I’ve often quoted the poet David Whyte, whose spiritual advisor once told him that the antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness. What he meant, of course, is that no amount of rest or sleep can cure our inner divisions, our extraordinary capacity to show up each day as a caricature of our very selves in order to please, to succeed, or to climb the never-ending ladder to approval. Eventually, we need to face the fraud.
I often think that the most basic message of Jesus is that we are the beloved, loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be. Pharisaism, after all, was an exercise in pretense. For all its obvious theological problems, it was a psychological problem in the end, a problem of fraudulent living as “whitewashed tombs.” The question all of us, and particularly those of us who make our living as ‘the religious’ must ask is, Am I a whitewashed tomb? Am I a fraud?
What Jesus confronts is a religion that desires sacrifice and not mercy. In other words, his chief complaint is reserved for those of us who say and do the right things, but live without integrity, without wholeheartedness, as…frauds. Mercy emerges from the heart that knows its messiness and corruption, and seeks to love those who are just as messy and corrupt. A merciful heart knows no pretense or judgment. It basks in humility. It enjoys its status as the beloved.
Wholehearted living is illusive to most of us, particularly those of us plagued by fear. Coming out of hiding is a difficult thing. It cannot be done by willpower alone. I’m convinced that its only in the context of knowing that we are the Beloved, deeply and intimately, that we can enjoy the freedom to be ourselves. The Cross and Resurrection, in the end, is not simply about some objective transaction. It is the greatest act of Love offered for those of us who wake up each day feeling exhausted, divided, and fraudulent, working tirelessly to fight back that part of us that is convinced that today is the day we’ll be found out for who we are.
Receiving this love may be the hardest thing Christians must do. And its perhaps because it is so hard that we major on the minors, avoiding our greatest internal fear and shame by clinging to agendas that we can control and areas in which we feel some sense of power or certainty. I confess that I do this more than I know. Living in integrity, to be sure, is much, much harder.
And so we wake each day to face the fraud. But, the larger question each of us must face is this: will the fraud, once and for all, receive the love it so desperately longs for?