Talking Theology and Counseling with Dr. Kevin VanHoozer

I had the privilege of writing a response to an article by theologian Kevin VanHoozer in a recent edition of the Journal of Christian Psychology’s Edification. VanHoozer is the author of many fine books, including The Drama of Doctrine.  His article attempts to apply his ‘theodramatic’ proposal to counseling and psychology.  My response and critique is a challenge for him to expand his anthropology, as I found his focus to be largely cognitive-behavioral.  Along with the contributions of a number of other respondents, the issue highlights issues of theological and psychological integration.  Read it here.  VanHoozer’s article begins at page 5, and my response is at page 17.

it’s the end of the world as we know it, and i feel fine

It’s only hours before Jesus comes back, according to Harold Camping.  It’s prime time for tweeting crazy stuff about the rapture, and waiting anxiously for that first 6:00 deadline in Tonga.  In fact, I was hoping Fuller Seminary would fly Professor Daniel Kirk to Tonga to report from Rapture Ground Zero.  It’s all a lot of fun right now, in fact, particularly for those of us who don’t believe that this is how it’ll all go down in the end.  And, to be honest, we’re all a little embarrassed that, once again, Christians look like freaks living for another world rather than loving and renewing the world God created and called good.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic, though.  You see, Harold Camping is “Uncle Harold” to me.  That’s what my Dad called him, anyway.  30 years ago, I was being tucked into bed to the sounds of Family Radio.  Uncle Harold didn’t sound half as crazy back then.  For a young kid intrigued by the Bible, it was hearing a guru with all the answers.  And then there were the Bible readings they offered, and the stories from Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, and the haunting hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past.”  It spoke of the “shelter from the stormy blast,” something that resonated with a fearful and sensitive little kid.

Family Radio put me to sleep every night.  Until I woke up to the craziness of Camping’s brand of Gnosticism around 13 or 14 years old, and switched the radio to REM.

As a therapist, my thoughts right now are with families that have been split over this, husbands who have left wives in feverish devotion to getting the word out, little kids who trusted their parents and will be heartbroken when May 21st comes and goes, for those who are gay and who’ve been further traumatized by Camping’s toxic talk about ‘Gay Pride and the End Times’, devoted followers of Camping who will wake up on May 22 confused and despairing, and others who will find some rationalization for Camping’s latest apocalyptic flop.  The media will have a field day with this.  But behind the cynicism will be despairing people, some who even wonder if they were ‘chosen.’

And so, it’s with some nostalgia and quite a bit of heartache that I watch all of this unfold, nevertheless thankful for the security I felt in God’s arms as I fell asleep each night, thanks to Family Radio, to Isaac Watts great hymn

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

That message, I can say with confidence, is enduring.

Facing the Fraud

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?

Love at the Core :: Loving our Enemies

Of the many quotes and Bible verses being tosses around the Internet and Twitter since the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, one has risen to the top.  It is actually an incorrect quote of Martin Luther King, Jr., but close enough to the real thing to warrant attention (thx to @Merobinaa for this.)  The real quote is just as powerful, and might be dismissed as activist jargon if they were not hauntingly reminiscent of Christ’s words.  MLK, Jr. writes

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” (from Strength to Love)

On September 11, 2001, I tried in vain to call my sister Kathy, who still lives where we grew up on Long Island.  An executive at Motorola, she would often drive into the city to visit her Manhattan colleagues.  When I finally reached her, I was comforted that she was safe, but experienced her tears for friends and colleagues who were lost in the attacks.  We reminisced about our times in the city as kids, and I fought back tears every time I considered going back, which our family did only last year.  It was a very emotional experience visiting Ground Zero.

It’s tough to imbibe the ethics of Jesus.  It’s tough, particularly, in a political climate where words like “good” and “evil” can be tossed around loosely to describe whole nations and even regions of the world.  Bible verses are called upon to justify whatever emotions we’re feeling.  Our very basic and raw desire for revenge is satisfied in the death of one man.  Facebook updates and ‘tweets’ talk of justice and jubilation.  And it’s very, very difficult not to feel even a bit relieved, or perhaps even thankful, that a man who could plot something as evil as the World Trade Center attacks can no longer perpetuate evil.

And then we’re faced with Jesus.  Jesus frustrated the ‘Zealots‘ of his day.  Even Peter experienced this frustration.  A reformed Zealot (or so we thought!), Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant in a seeming act of noble Messiah-security.  But Jesus quickly restored his enemy’s ear, rebuking Peter instead.  This was not merely a Messiah who waxed eloquent about loving one’s enemies.  When his life was on the line, he actually did it.

These things, of course, cannot be easily transformed into political policy, nor are they meant to be.  But the actions of Jesus do get you thinking.  For centuries after Jesus, Christians would succumb to the sword instead of taking up the sword against Rome.  Why?  It makes little sense.  But then again, Paul would remind us that the Gospel is “foolishness.”

And then the inevitable questions come today:

Should I tell a woman who has been emotionally abused in her marriage to love her abuser?

Should I counsel a victim of sexual assault to forgive, or even to turn the other cheek?

These issues require more space, and I’ve written on this before.  However, in this context, they’re worth revisiting, particularly among those who seek to follow Jesus, to become like him, to experience a life of self-sacrificial love.

As I’ve written this short blog series called Love at the Core, I’m struck more than ever by the centrality of love.  And with that brings the difficulty of love.  And it’s times like these that I’m quite happy not to be a politician, translating this difficult ethic into political action.  Sometimes, it’s easier pontificating as a pastor in the blogosphere.  What I do know, today and everyday, whether faced with OBL’s death or with the abusive spouse of a client, is that I’m compelled to wrestle with this ethic of love and forgiveness that Jesus presents.

That, I suspect, will take a lifetime to figure out.  I certainly haven’t figured it out yet.