Can you “narcissist-proof” a system?

If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?

Seth Haines asked this (@sethhaines on Twitter…a must follow), and I’ve been chewing on it since. His question took me back to conversations with friends from different backgrounds, some who’ve thought great systems and structures could safeguard from narcissism, and some who believed good doctrine (defined differently depending on who I talked to) could do it.

As I mused, I remembered the story of a pastor I’ll call Jake. Jake started on staff at a medium-sized seeker sensitive church, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he was working for an image-driven, stage-loving, leadership-guru pastor whose staff/system adored and enabled him and who only had time for Jake when he was pitching a potentially successful new initiative. This pastor employed all of the popular leadership techniques and created structures that buzzed with efficiency, but everything revolved around the grandiose ego of the lead pastor.

So when Jake and his therapist agreed it was time to move on, he transitioned into another associate role at a small Anglican church plant, a welcome new place of rootedness after his seeker-sensitive sojourn and a church connected to a global community. The liturgy moved Jake and Sarah, his wife. The music was indescribably beautiful – folksy and engaging and lyrically rich. But then, the Bishop and Jake’s pastor got into it. He watched his vestry passive in the face of the Bishop’s abuse of his new mentor and friend. Soon enough, the exasperated pastor left and the Bishop started filling in, barking his way through the once-rich liturgy like a field marshal.

Tired and confused, Jake found himself hopeful again when a young urban church asked him to join the staff. This church was theologically progressive, unlike the others. He served alongside a competent and savvy staff. The lead pastor, a winsome, energetic, tatted up rock star embraced Jake from the start. In her, he found an acceptance he thought impossible. But then she began confiding her lack of confidence in another staff member, questioning her loyalty. In fact, while being the favorite felt so different and even gratifying, at one level, he felt gross and used at another. And while the staff read all of the best church health books available, he knew he was trapped in an awful, sticky web of narcissism once again.

When Jake finally came to me, he was going to plant a church. I talked him out of it. I was pretty confident all of that ‘stuff’ was in him in such a way that he’d show up on day one with good intentions, but with a trauma-laden body capable of inflicting pain on others.

Seth asked, “If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?”

And as I’ve pondered this today, and over years of navigating ecclesial and institutional narcissism myself, I keep coming back to a simple (maybe simplistic) gut-level response – healthy people.

  • Healthy people. People who’ve navigated the messy terrain of their own stories, and are honest about their beauty and brokenness.
  • Healthy people. People who create safe spaces wherever they go. They’re not inclined to lead by power but by creating space for empowerment. (This is code for “trauma informed”).
  • Healthy people. People who are differentiated. They are not pulled to-and-fro by every passing wind of relational tug-of-wars. They do not merge or disconnect.
  • Healthy people. People who know in their bodies the crazy-making, gaslighting feelings of an abusive, narcissistic leader or system. And are able to name it.
  • Healthy people. People who are secure. Safe in their own being and “in Christ” not merely as an identity marker but a lived reality. They don’t demand respect, but people give it to them. You sense the gravity of their person.
  • Healthy people. People who show up as a non-anxious presence. They show up in a room, and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief. Their presence turns down the anxiety volume.
  • Healthy people. People who are honest. They name reality. They are not afraid to lay their cards on the table, not in some act of gamesmanship, but because integrity is in their bones.
  • Healthy people. People who’ve done their inner work. They tell on themselves. On the first day of work they say, “This is me…the good, the bad, and the ugly…let’s live in the truth together. Feel free to name when I’ve hurt you.”

Seth may be looking for a more sophisticated answer, but I doubt it. He knows messiness. And he knows the long-and-winding journey to health. I think we’ve both been around long enough to be suspicious of idealized, naive answers to complicated questions like his.

And so, as I say often to people, do your own work. Do your work and show up, anchored in your deepest You (Catherine of Genoa), which is secure in God’s infinite love and goodness. My hope for health in churches and systems of all kinds is…well…you. All of you who’ve connected to Love and who live in love, not in some cheesy me-and-my-sweet-Jesus-pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, but in the Eph. 3:16-18 ground-of-our-being sense of it.

Narcissism feeds off of the lie that our persona (Jung), that our illusory self (Merton) is all there is. That’s paper thin. What the world needs is people of substance…grown-ups like you who show up not with some agenda but agenda-less (see Bonnie Bandenoch, The Heart of Trauma), calm and curious and compassionate and connected to the infinitely Secure source of all health and wholeness. People who reveal Christ simply in their being…and being present.

Be there. And you can be anywhere.

Grace and peace.

 

Resources…off the top of my head

Miller and Cook, Boundaries for your Soul

Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety

Herrington and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey

Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

Allender, Leading with a Limp

Laird, Into the Silent Land

Cox, A Conscious Life

Haines, The Book of Waking Up

Me, When Narcissism Comes to Church (coming March)

The Deeper Acceptance We Long For

“We ache for self-acceptance, and it is often a friend accepting us as we are which enables us to begin to accept ourselves. But the acceptance has to be genuine. I want the deepest part of me to be accepted, not my sanitized, plastic, cosmetic self.

Only in companionship with fellow pilgrims can I begin to tell the difference between that in me which is more me than myself and that in me which is wearing the mask or the make-up of an assigned role. Without you as companion and friend I confuse the outer shell with the inner substance. That is why I sometimes get angry and frustrated with people who say, “Relax, and be yourself!” I know they mean well by this command, but it only serves to aggravate the problem. Only by the nurturing and probing of companions can the deeper self emerge. I remember being given a button to wear at a conference some years ago. It had one word on it: “BE!” and while I longed to BE with a capital B, I pointed out that I need Christian companionship, worship, and nurture in order to discover what it might mean to BE. On that particular day for me to BE would have meant letting a great deal of sourness and mean-spiritedness spill out. Maybe that was what was expected. Maybe that was what was expected. The point is that psychology has taught me that I have many selves, that there is a whole cast of characters in me who would like to BE. The Christian faith, on the other hand, assures me that in the fellowship of Christ I can trust that the deepest in me, behind the list of actors, is one whom God knows and loves.”

— Alan Jones in Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay On Christian Friendship

Ministry Exhaustion

My heart was hard, and my mind was fuzzy.

Nothing proved a comfort, and I remained for that wretched season

shut in on all sides, stifled, gasping for breath.

Regardless, the grace of God arrives

rushing to the soul

when its endurance is exhausted.

Of a dreary morning, I stood gazing round the courtyard, pleading God for assistance;

suddenly I turned toward the broad monastery and saw one

dressed as though a bishop

enter the open doors, as though borne on wings.

He touched me on the chest and tapped my tender breastbone saying aloud:

I waited, I waited patiently for the Lord

And he stooped down to me.

He heard my cry.

He drew me from the deadly pit, from the mire and clay.

He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm.

He put a new song into my mouth, new praise of our God.

He spoke these lines three times, tapping me each time on the tender breastbone.Image result for st dorotheos of gaza

Then, he turned and was gone, and instantly,

light flooded my mind,

and joy split my heart with an awful, aching sweetness.

–St. Dorotheos of Gaza, early church monk and movement leader (490-560)

 

In Search of a Spacious Place

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Ps. 18:19

Image result for stars at nightAren’t we all longing for a spacious place? Aren’t we all longing for a place to run free, to breathe deeply, to spin round and round with our arms wide open? Don’t we all desire relationships where we’re known and loved unconditionally and wholeheartedly?

When I was a teenager on Long Island, I used to drive to the marina in West Sayville late at night in order to catch the vast expanse of the starry heavens. When I felt constricted and closed in, that dock became my thin place, and my soul would expand.

This longing for a spacious place was the instinct years ago behind my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. Egypt is called Mitzrayim, a narrow place, the kind of place that will suffocate you if you stay there too long. You know those narrow places – the abusive relationship, your couch (after binging cable news for 5 hours), the inner mental state of constant suspicion or comparison. There are many mitzrayim’s in our lives. For some of us, constriction is a daily, burdensome reality. I longed to paint a picture of that winding journey to freedom.

Years ago I got 5 minutes with NT Wright. No, I won’t call him my close personal friend “Tommy.” But intuiting my interest in psychology, he turned me on to the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Through masterful research, McGilchrist demonstrates the unique influences of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Even more, he shows how each has the capacity to create reality, impacting how we live and process daily life. What is most striking is his argument that the world we live in today operates primarily according to the left hemisphere. While the right hemisphere prefers mystery, covets connection, sees wholistically, and thrives in the “spacious places,” the left slices and dices, polarizes, and judges with sharp right/wrong, either/or thinking. The left knows only in part, but speaks with certainty. The right sees the whole, and stands in awe. I think Wright was hinting at the right hemisphere as a key to a Kingdom imagination.

The sad reality is that while both hemispheres are necessary for their healthiest contributions, you and I probably live most of life according to the left hemisphere. And that’s exhausting. It’s like living life in a perpetual Game of Thrones or House of Cards episode. We are constantly measuring, comparing, sizing up, scheming, and climbing. Think about left brain influence in our politics, our theologizing, our tweeting, our leadership, our church strategizing.

But we can’t shake the longing for something more. In early August, our family swam DAY_water-37and snorkeled with dolphins and sea turtles in the wild. As I peered below, more than 40 dolphins swam freely, rhythmically, and playfully, sometimes pairing off to dazzle us with an improvised dance. It was another universe below the waterline. I felt like I’d entered a dreamscape.

Every so often I evaluate what generates left hemispheric activity and what generates right hemispheric activity in my life. I can feel it in my body. I evaluate my work and relationships, social media engagements and projects through the lens of what cultivates spaciousness. You can do this too. But you’ve got to tune in to a deeper intuition, a bodily intuition which whispers more than shouts. You’ve got to pay close attention to the gradual revelation of capaciousness in your being. This counsel from Rilke to his young apprentice in 1903 may help:

…just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.

I long for a spacious place, these days. I’m beginning to believe that if it’s not expansive, it’s not worth it.

While left hemisphere influence is crucial for everyday living, McGilchrist has convinced me that a fundamentally different inner orientation is necessary for real transformation. The kind of generative imagination needed amidst our current polarization won’t arise from our slicing, dicing, and scheming side. But because we’re literally swimming in the waters of left-brained addiction, real intentionality is required for a new way of living, a more spacious way of living.

I’ve led and now I train leaders, and my sense is that while I can equip them with knowledge and tools, there is a spacious consciousness, a curious silence, a non-anxious patience that I need to nurture within them. They need to plunge beneath the waters for a while to gaze at the dolphins or venture out late at night to peer at the starry sky so that awe and humility take root. They need to go on the wilderness journey where dark nights cloud the sight of their gods of certainty, purity, ego, and power, revealing one who is True.

Rumi once said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My sense is that is the spacious place where Jesus is Lord, where the broken are blessed, the mourners comforted, the hungry and thirsty satisfied. If McGilchrist is right, God has truly set eternity in our hearts. And perhaps, freed from constriction and opened to capacious connection, we can live as ambassadors who’ve tasted and seen a new and spacious land, and who long for others to taste it too.

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

The older I get, the more the old saying of Jesus “Physician, heal thyself” makes sense. I’ve spent more than two decades doing a lot of caring. But the more attend to myself, the more sadness I find, the more anxiety I feel, the more trauma I notice. The more I realize that I desperately need to take time to slow down, to feel, to notice the places of pain and, more importantly, the places of sacred presence, remembering that Jesus dwells amidst it all, loving each and every weary and wounded part. 

Part of growing up is becoming aware, and at least a part of this is choosing to feel your own pain and the pain of the world around you. Of course, in typical either-or ways, some choose to bury their heads in the sand while others choose complete immersion in the pain. It has always interested me that Jesus chose neither extreme. How many people in pain did Jesus walk by during his earthly sojourn? Many. How many could he have healed with a better time-and-ministry management strategy? Many. But neither did he refuse to engage the pain – he absorbed the sin of the whole world into his own body!

Somehow, we engage – sometimes at great cost – but we might also take the counsel of St. Teresa – to measure our efforts so as to not exhaust ourselves.

I weighed this over the past weeks as I grieved the untimely death of my father-in-law, just months after my mother-in-law. I felt a confusing array of emotions in me – sadness, anger, relief. We also celebrated my birthday, our 25th anniversary, and my daughter’s high school graduation with a hastily planned and wildly providential trip to Hawaii, made possible because my father-in-law’s passing caused us to cancel a long-planned trip and opened up substantially cheaper rates for flights to Hawaii. How could I hold joy, sadness, gratitude, anger, joy, relief, and confusion in this moment?

But then, the pain on the world doesn’t pause when you take a vacation. Each day, our family would process what seems to be a daily torrent of sad, confusing, enraging, and demoralizing stories. My daughters – 18 and almost 17 – are of a generation of information deluge. I don’t know how they can possibly process everything they take in. I want them to choose to hold the particularly painful stories with some kind of sanctity. And I know they wrestle with the obvious tensions. They feel, in their own young bodies, the weight of Christian school classmates who’ve told fellow students of color to “go home.” Like me, they struggle with the daily moral contradictions of political leadership. I’m a student of narcissism and trauma and a counselor to many – hell, I’ve got a book coming out on narcissism -and I barely feel capable of psychological and spiritual resilience myself, at times, as I witness this daily decomposition of human dignity and character. Somehow, each of us must assess our own threshold of trauma tolerance, and do the careful work of engaging, but also appropriately disengaging (without dissociating).

Physician, heal thyself. In other words, take care of you. Guard your heart. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowds for silence, for intimate conversations with friends, for a meal. Rest. Eat. Exercise. Vacation. Be silent in prayer. Breathe. Listen.

At least a part of what it means to be “in Christ,” I suspect, is to recognize you’re in Christ, not Christ himself, not the savior of the world. Don’t hesitate to enter the painful world and speak truth. But don’t be fooled into thinking your participation is the hinge upon which everything swings. The older I get, the more I realize that there was pain before me, that there is pain today, and that pain will outlive me. All of creation groans, longing for redemption. I do want to be present to it, but I also do realize that I’m limited. If I’ve learned anything from studying narcissism, abuse, and trauma, it’s this – if our wounds go unhealed, we will distribute our woundedness to others. Pain that isn’t healed is hurled in every direction. 

Take good care, these days. Invest deeply and passionately, and rest wholeheartedly. Pay attention, not just to what’s on the news, but to what you need. And always, rest deeply as the beloved one, held in unfathomable love forever.

Peace.

Hello Depression My Old Friend

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

May began by saying goodbye to my dear mother-in-law, whose mental health story is not mine to tell, but whose heartache was evident to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her.

Both on the long drive to Iowa and during our time there, I felt a deep sadness. I looked through old pictures hoping to find a radiant smile on Marlene’s face, but only found one very early picture where she seemed barreled over by joy. In her last decade, perhaps longer, dementia stole even more from her. Knowing enough of her story, I had this sense that it was all just so unfair, that her precious life marked by a gentle spirit suffered under the afflictive fog of depression, robbing those she loved of her innate radiance and joy.

We drove back late last week, Sara and the girls in our Highlander following me in my father-in-law’s 2007 Mercury Montego, now my youngest daughter’s ride. I spent most of the drive in silence. I wasn’t feeling much. I didn’t want much, not even an appetite for an Audible book, my normal driving-fare. I’d been doing a lot of attending to others in this season, but I couldn’t even attend to myself, let alone find God in the fog.

Depression.

You don’t even know the fog has descended. For most of us acquainted with it, depression is so familiar that it can feel like a comfortable old coat. I’ve worn this coat for as long as I can remember, saved by meds and counseling and a curious spouse and good friends who attend to me on occasion. Depression and anxiety are like really old companions who lurk in the shadows, coming out now and then to remind me of their presence. Sometimes I even greet my depression: Oh hello depression, I didn’t even see you old friend. How long have you been hanging around?

My depression isn’t marked by the deep ebb. It’s more like a rolling tide that swells with joy and gratitude for a season and then releases into malaise for the next. In depression, even small things feel overwhelming. This has the effect of increasing anxiety and, for me, compounding shame as I think about those I’ll disappoint or things I’ll forget and how there’s just something chronically wrong with me because of it.

In this season, it’s hard to pray. It’s hard to write. I judge many of the sentences that come from my mouth because the hazy fog disrupts my speech.

I don’t write this to solicit pity but because “if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours” (Buechner, Telling Secrets). It’s because there are pastors and writers and theologians and counselors and chaplains who do the work of making sense out of this world for others, but who can only do it because we’re deeply acquainted with non-sense, with darkness and sadness and the familiar fog.

Buechner goes on to say that “it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” And so we tell our stories. This is mine.

Image result for downcast soul

I’m in the gray ebb right now. But I’m functioning. Because I’m a helper, you’ll still experience me caring and think I’m ok. Because I’m from the Northeast, you’ll hear a quick sarcastic quip and think I’m ok…but maybe not as funny as I think I am. Because I hate disappointing you, you’ll probably get a late email with an apology and think I’m ok. But the reality for those of us who do the mental health dance is that we’re constantly tuned to “we’re not ok.” And we perpetually wondering if there will ever be a time when it will really be ok.

I’m aware of it now, so I’ll return to familiar patterns of self-care. The Psalms become a constant companion to give voice to hidden currents of sadness. I create space to feel sadness or rage or disappointment or despair. I try to share honestly with close companions, and I ask for grace when I can’t come through (as I just did with a colleague who asked me to speak at a commencement event). I exercise. I check my alcohol intake, but even more my motivations. I try to eat healthier and take my meds. I rest into the arms of the God-who-is-always-home, greeting me with a smile even as I feel sadness.

And I wait for it to pass.

But in the meantime, I greet this familiar friend. Hello again. Another day of the dance, huh? OK. Be gentle.

And I whisper a quiet prayer to remind me of what’s true:

Christ above me.

Christ below me.

Christ to my right.

Christ to my left.

Christ behind me.

Christ before me.

Christ within me. 

To all of you struggling, I lift a prayer for your downcast spirit (Ps. 43:5) and take some comfort knowing I’m not alone.

 

 

You Can Have It All vs. It’s All Already Yours

First Sunday in Lent

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:10-11

You can have it all. Really, you can. Someone on a commercial just told me.

The tragedy is that we believe it. We strive for it. Envy burns within as our coworker gets the promotion, our siblings gets the boat, our neighbor gets the in-ground pool. We are always looking for fulfillment on the outside, aren’t we?

Jesus heard the words, too. You can have it all! And don’t think for a moment he didn’t pause. Let us not forget that Jesus was fully human. Jesus was not at all immune to the twinge of envy, the surge of lust, the enticement of you-can-have-it-all. Shortly before his crucifixion, he’d even agonize over his vocation: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).

Perhaps, Jesus even thought to himself, “I’ve heard this story before.” Surging into his memory comes the recollection of a day when, gathered with other Jewish boys, he hears the original temptation story of Genesis 3 told. Images of the slithering snake, the promise of power and knowledge, and the sting of shame flood his mind. You, Jesus, can have it all.

Consider this, too. Not only is Jesus fully human, but Jesus is also fully God. He was present at creation, in creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. I’m speculating here, but maybe something of his own original, Trinitarian imagination surged within the moment. Could it be that Jesus recalled the original simplicity and beauty of Eden, capturing it in words familiar to any Jew of that day:

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Maybe in that one crucial moment, Jesus remembered. Maybe in the midst of the you can have it all whisper, Jesus recalled – Worship the Lord and serve only him. Maybe he remembered his origins. Maybe he remembered his birthright. Maybe he remembered that humanity is born of more simple things – earth, soil, humility.  Image result for soil

That’s it, isn’t it? You see, if God is God, then you don’t have to be. You can give up your relentless, exhausting attempt to be more than you are – richer, sexier, stronger. You can remember that “everything I have is already yours.” You don’t need anything more. God is God, you’re not, and that’s that. You can remember. You can receive. You can rest, returning the humble ground of your being.

The words Jesus found in that moment were familiar ones, repeated often in his Scriptures – Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, and in many other paraphrases. They are a call to remember. It was a way of saying, “Let’s get back to the basics – to who I am, who you are, to who we are together.” Worship is not some demand of a narcissistic God, but an invitation to be re-oriented rightly, to return to the ground of our beings, to accept the gift of the dust. Worship is the great return to our depths.

It’s hard to remember. That’s why we need Lent. In the midst of a world that says, “You can have it all,” Jesus reminds us that we already do. We need not attain it. We need not achieve it. We, more often than not, simply fall into it.

__________

Prayer:

Jesus, it’s hard to imagine resisting that “you can have it all” voice as you did. The security you had in being God’s beloved is remarkable. I long for this, too. In my head, I can believe that I have it all in you, but it’s a much harder journey to live it. Will you whisper it to me regularly, by your Spirit? Amen

from Falling into Goodness

Dignity and Dust

She sends an email to me with an anxious energy to it. In it, she writes, “Seriously, I’ve not given any thought to Lent this year, and I’m not sure what I should give up.”

“Why don’t you give up being so anxious?” I say. She isn’t amused. We know each other well enough for the banter, but my response also touches a deeper pain within her.

“I haven’t known a day without anxiety for years,” she says. “At least Lent gives me some control over it. I can give up chocolate or social media and feel a little better about myself.”

Hmmm.

Later I call her and check in further. Every year, the anxiety ramps up around this time, she tells me. New Year commitments to diet and exercise have faded. Lent seems like the perfect opportunity to recommit. I sense her weariness. I want to be sensitive, and yet I’m mad. I’m mad at Lenten diets. I’m mad at liturgical pragmatism. I’m mad not at her, but for her. I know her story – the expectations she lives with, the buzzing anxiety that covers a brutal shame about her appearance and her obedience.

It’s Transfiguration Sunday, and I’ve just preached at a wonderful church led by friends in Boulder. I preached 2 Cor. 3.

15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

The message of Transfiguration Sunday is that the Spirit reveals you as glorious, I tell her.

You.

Are.

Glorious.

Theology has conspired with family-of-origin issues in her life in a way that she’s convinced she’s despicable, that as her pastor says, “God cannot look upon you in your sin so God looks at Jesus.”

I wince.

“No, you are glorious.”

“But Lent tells me I’m dirt,” she says.

Hmmm.

I tell her about Lent. Lent (Lencthen) is a season of lengthening, of springtime hope, of new birth. The seed that falls to the ground bears fruit, I say. I ask her if she plans to go to Ash Wednesday services, and she says yes. I tell her that the imposition of ashes is a glorious thing – an invitation to return to the dust. No more anxious striving. No more cheap “enoughness” substitutes. It’s not about giving up chocolate, but giving up striving. Returning to the ground, the humus…a place of rest, humility, simply being.

“I’m so tired,” she says.

“I know.”

I share a quote from Rabbi Bunim: Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. One that says, “I am a speck of dust.” And another that says, “The world was made for me.”

“That’s beautiful,” she says. “I needed that.”

Dust and dignity.

Limitation and Love.

“Maybe I am gloriously ordinary and God loves me in that,” she says.

I call it “liturgical therapy,” I say.

Wiser people than me chose to place Transfiguration Sunday right before Ash Wednesday.

Moses ascended into the thin place where heaven meets earth, a place called Sinai. And he radiated the glory.

Jesus ascended the mount followed by his disciples. And he was transfigured before them.

But now you and I are the thin place, the place where heaven meets earth. The Spirit dwells in us, God’s temples.

And we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

Image result for transfiguration

 

Rediscovering Nouwen | On Power and Intimacy

I’m continuing to reflect on Henri Nouwen’s 1972 book The Wounded Healer. Now 46 years later, it’s as important as ever to wrestle with Nouwen’s invitation, particularly when it seems that our political and ecclesial leaders operate more from a posture of power rather than intimacy, particularly as we see our own propensity to live from places of self-protection and power rather than vulnerability.

I’ve read a bunch of biographies of Nouwen over the years and I’m struck by how transparent he was about his woundedness, his neediness. His deeply subjective and experiential spirituality irked clerical authorities as well as colleagues at Yale and Harvard, even as his Catholicism remained quite conservative and as he resisted controversial subjects. His fragility rattled new friends who expected him to be the solid, stable sage. His neediness impacted close friendships, some of which were ruptured. And yet, his autobiographical and self-disclosing style was far from narcissistic. His writings are so popular, even today, because he names our secrets, he reveals our fragility, he exposes our brokenness. We see our stories in his.

It’s striking to me that Nouwen was tenured at Yale although he never finished his PhD! We strategize to rise through the ranks. We edit resumes to highlight our successes. We compile degrees and credentials and titles and achievements. When we do attain power, we’re careful to protect it. With power, it becomes even more important to hide our secret compulsions, our simmering anxiety, our burdening needs for approval and affection and belonging. Nouwen was invited into spaces not because he had the degrees but because he put words to our deep longings.

In another book, Nouwen muses on Christian leadership, writing:

The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.  Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.[i]

Nouwen believed that the temptation to power, to success, and to relevance was greatest in those most out of touch with their own humanness – their needs for intimacy and connection, their fragility and fears. He believed that those most out-of-touch with their own stories would be most likely to project their psychic trauma onto others.

Image result for henri nouwen

Henri Nouwen

As we examine ourselves, it’s important ask: Why do we pursue power? What deeper needs are we attempting to meet through its attainment? Why do we crave position? Achievement? Success? Is there a deeper ache we’re neglecting to notice?  Indeed, testimonies of life-crises among those who’ve attained it only to discover an inner emptiness and lack of satisfaction ought to remind us that there is so much more available, if only we’d allow ourselves to be seen and known. The masquerade is exhausting. Show your true face, and be free.

[i] Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1989), 60.

Becoming a Wounded Healer

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that one can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” Henri Nouwen

I’ve been re-visiting an old friend recently – Henri Nouwen – who is easily in my Top 5 most formative modern spiritual writers. The lanky Dutchman was a complicated man, a priest whose congregation was everyone, a psychologist whose greatest riddle was himself, a giver who could hardly get out of his own way, an outsider whose popular writings were ridiculed by his academic colleagues, and a prophet whose theo-autobiographical style connected with the masses.

I’ve seen myself in Nouwen, at times. He could be both compelling and awkward, dynamic and insecure, manic and depressed, spirit-filled and empty. His paradoxical life isn’t one we necessarily aspire to – after all, who wants to wrestle with the deep anguish of self-rejection, as one biographer calls his “primal wound”? It’s his honesty we aspire to. It’s a canon of writings that might be rightly called The Confessions of Henri Nouwen. 

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because fragility is weakness. I’ve long resented my own fragility.

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because loneliness is a sign of relational awkwardness. How often have I been lonely and not reached out?

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because trained priest-psychologists are supposed to have it all together. Place a check there, too.

It’s a life of a wounded healer, as Nouwen called it, a life in which our loneliness and fragility, awkwardness and anxiety, shame and insecurity, are not always hidden. To be sure, we’ll try to mask it. But those who know us best see right through us. And, paradoxically, when we risk being seen, we find that our presence is a gift. Others feel like a space is created for their own fear and awkwardness. Others find freedom in our spacious presence.

I’m drawn to Nouwen because he brought his wounds into the light to be healed. Somehow, he lived something I often only proclaim but fear living – that to be known intimately by another, to risk vulnerability, is to encounter the possibility of healing. I continue to crave the respect of academic colleagues, so I play the part as well as I can. I continue to crave the affirmation of ministry peers, so I play the part as well as I can. Nouwen seems so wounded that, in one sense, he couldn’t really get out of his own way. And yet, his great ‘genius’ is his radical, intentional engagement with the text of his own life. He was a master exegete of his own story.

He is a ‘wounded healer’ precisely because he brings his wounds into the light. Image result for the wounded healerOften, those who are wounded remain unhealed. Many become ‘victimizing victims’, not wounded healers. We hide, we numb, we settle, we avoid. The gift of Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer is its prophetic call to do the hard work of healing, to engage our own stories, to acknowledge our repressed needs, to name our deepest longings. This is a huge risk, especially for pastors. Congregations want the Put-Together-Pastor, not the wounded healer.

And yet, I’m more and more convinced that if we refuse to do the work, if we refuse to engage the pain of our own stories, we become wounded wounders. The plague of the narcissism, as I’ve written about, emerges when we’re disconnected from ourselves, from our longings. It’s ironic, because a condition which appears most self-centered is actually a condition of radical self-disconnection manifesting in a person utterly out of touch with his own needs, his own longings, his own story.

What if pastors were wounded healers whose stories were the fertile soil for connection with lonely, addicted, insecure congregations?

What if we lived so freely that confessions of our fear and loneliness were welcomed, even easy to offer?

My plan in the coming weeks is to reflect further on what it means to be a wounded healer on the heels of the year 2020, two decades (if you can believe it) into the new millennium. Nouwen’s 1979 book was a gift, but it was written 40 years ago. What might Nouwen have to say to us today? Let’s explore this together in coming posts…