The (Pastor’s) Journey

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

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

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


Photo by gyaban


Powerlessness and the Pastor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom.  I’ve got plenty to go on.  

And then the second boom.  The bigger BOOM.

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

+ + +

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

+ + +

The war within continues…

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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