Leaving the wilderness: Advice for leaders and pastors

I wrote a book a few years back called Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.  In it, I argued that our personal journeys mirror the Exodus journey of the Israelites long ago.  I see this in four major movements – 1) leaving egypt, the place of our bondage and fear 2) sinai – the place where we learn of our true identity and the pathway to life 3) wilderness – the necessary place where our identity is questioned, wrestled with, disrupted, confused, and worked through in lament and 4) union – our life beyond the wilderness where our deep identity as the beloved is internalized, believed, and enjoyed. home_nopeople

Now, if we get ‘stuck’ at Sinai, we become Pharisees, refusing to grow through the necessary confusion and suffering which deepens our identity and intimacy in and with God.  This can be the case for the most rigid fundamentalist who runs fearfully from any inkling of disruption or doubt, or the certain liberal whose dogmatism and close-mindedness is no less toxic than the fundamentalist’s.  The wilderness is the necessary place of humiliation for us all.  It is the way of purgation, in the classic sense, where we are stripped of our arrogance, our self-righteousness, our hypocrisy. The wilderness becomes the furnace for transformation.

But the wilderness is not a final destination.  I’ve found that pastoring and loving people in the ‘wilderness’ requires great patience (particularly for yourself as you navigate it!)  It is den of paradox, uncertainty, and confusion.  Bold and risky prayers are prayed.  At times, people find themselves exploring concepts that are deemed outside the lines by the doctrine police, whether on the left or right.  Sometimes we act and behave eccentrically.  We might even hurt others and ourselves, leaving a spouse, or leaving a church, or giving up on faith.  We need patience for ourselves and others as we wrestle with God, much like Jacob did, as they declare their confusion, much like Job did.  Those in authority will be frustrated, dismayed, reactive, and punitive depending on where they are on their journey.

But what if we don’t leave the wilderness?  I’ve taught for a long time that some find this to be a destination, where their questions and confusion are “baptized,” where uncertainty becomes the new certainty, where coloring outside the lines becomes a new arrogant and self-righteous identity.  While Sinai brings the danger of Pharisaical legalism and moralism, the wilderness brings the danger of existentialism and even Gnosticism, a sense that my experience is normative, that my expanded wilderness consciousness brings me greater access to God.  In fact, to our dismay we might find that this is a new ‘Egypt’ for us, another prison.

There is a group identity that comes with each of these.  Where at Sinai we connect through “dogma-bonding,” in the wilderness we connect through “trauma-bonding.”  Ours becomes the “messy” church, or the “broken” church, or the “open” church.  The new Gnosticism emerges through a sense that “we get it,” that “we’ve progressed further,” that somehow this group is no longer enslaved to the old dogmas.  And indeed, there is a freedom felt in this for many who were trapped in their old dogmatism and moralism. While honoring this new sense of freedom, we need to invite people to see the dangers of getting stuck in the wilderness.

Sometimes, this comes from the seeing that the arrogance and certainty here are just as toxic to them and others.

Sometimes, it comes from an intellectual honesty which admits that this new uncertainty is, in itself, a form of certainty, a ‘position’, a ‘confession’.

Sometimes, it comes when the wilderness wanderer realizes how exhausted he is.  The exhaustion I’ve seen here comes from a constant need to be different, edgy, open, engaged with new thinking, constantly defining himself as different or other.

In the last chapter of the book Leaving Egypt, I write on “Theosis or Neurosis.”  Theosis is the ancient way of talking about union with Christ, living out of our deepest identity as the beloved of God.  In this place, we have no need to compare or compete, no need to parade our eccentricities or edgy ideas, no need to apologize for holding a position or living from a particular confession.  We’re simply transparent.  We recognize the beauty and brokenness of all traditions, all dogmas, even our own, but choose to remain in the simul iustus et peccator of it all.

We relinquish the need to perfect others, to perfect our church, to perfect the community or the world.

We don’t give up participation in the process of bringing about the flourishing of it all, but we give up the need to do it on our terms.

We act with grace toward others, even those with whom we disagree.  From this place of identity, we need not treat the world as a theological combat zone.

We don’t mock and we lose the desire to be purposefully incendiary.

We live from a place of confession, within a tradition, with transparency and without elitism or dogmatic certainty.

We can honestly say, “I might be wrong, but here I stand.”

We become more patient with ourselves and others, recognizing that they’re navigating their own unique place on the exodus journey, and that at any time, at any moment, we might find ourselves together in Egypt again, waking up to new attachments and idolatries and enslavements together.  This becomes a joy, because we realize how human we are, and it’s ok…because we’re “in Christ,” the most secure location possible.

This is the journey I’ve been navigating in fits and starts for years, with many ups and downs, at some cost to myself and others, but with many “happy returns” along the way.  I suspect you can relate.

But knowing that there is an Exodus ‘map’ helps me see that promised land and yearn for its Rest.  I hope it does the same for you.

Wholiness – Living Holy Lives Wholly

I lectured recently on holiness and wholeness.  “Holiness,” of course, has been the subject of conversation in the sanctification debates among the New Calvinists asking, ‘Can we expect to progress in our holy living?’  On the other hand, “wholeness” has been all the chatter since Brené Brown released her breakout book The Gifts of Imperfection.  Many Christians have been attracted to her message of vulnerability, brokenness, curiosity, and compassion.  In my talk, I hoped to say, “We might just be closer to one another than we think!”

Of course, Brené Brown didn’t invent the terms “wholeness” or “wholeheartedness.”  She’s a researcher who discovered certain things about living and thriving, success and failure, that caught her attention and changed her own life.  I’d like to think that she stumbled upon the secret written from the foundation of the world – that we are designed to flourish.  And human flourishing connects us to God’s vision for shalom – harmony, peace, wholeness.  Brené Brown stumbled onto the grand telos, though she didn’t know it.

Now, that grand telos is what Moses offered Israel in the law, saying in essence, “Here are God’s commandments – live in this way and you’ll thrive.”  And of course, he said, “Love the Lord with your whole heart.”  The commandments, the very symbol of “holiness,” were God’s first window into the life of shalom.  But Israel, like us, took the law as a sin-management tool rather than a vision for flourishing.  They became a noose rather than a balm.  And that holiness-legalism continues even today, enslaving us with guilt, with shame, with questions like, “What if I’m not enough?”

But Jesus ascended the Mount of Beatitudes as the “New Moses” with a new law.  He began by saying, “You’re far more broken than you think.”  Blessed are the ptochos – those who’ve come to the end of themselves, those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those who are impoverished in spirit.  And on he went, speaking of mourning and humility and desire and mercy and…purity.  And when we reach that Beatitude – the Purity Beatitude – we think to ourselves, “Well, here it goes…Jesus is going to tell us to get our acts together.”  (Note:  Purity is often all the buzz among Christian singles trying to make sure they don’t screw up sexually).

CrackedMaskBut purity, in the way Jesus understood it, was something radically different.  The Greek word he uses (katharos) gets ‘to the heart’ of the matter.  Purity, in this sense, is integrity (integer = whole number), wholeness, when our inner life matches our outer behavior.  Jesus was saying that you’re blessed when you abandon the hypocrisy (= stage acting) of the Pharisees, and join the community of the broken, the mourners, the humbled, and the hungry who can’t quite hide their sin behind masks.  The payoff of purity, Jesus says, is “seeing God.”  True contemplatives long to see God, abandoning the masks which block the view.

Later in the same mountain sermon, he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” which again makes us feel somewhat guilty, as if we’ve got to muster up the strength to match God’s utter perfection.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called Christians to a “costly discipleship” in contrast to a “cheap discipleship” must have loved this verse, we think.  However Bonhoeffer himself translates this passage “Be whole as your heavenly father is whole.”  The word there (teleios) gets at human flourishing, human wholeness, human thriving.  This is the aim and goal of human existence.  We actually get in the way with our legalistic striving and sin-management.

Of course, much later Søren Kierkegaard would write his book Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing.  And St. Paul may have wished he’d read it.  Paul, of course, would confess his own double-mindedness and inner contradictions in Romans 7 saying, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”  

You see, Paul knew what we know, that we’re all a mix of beauty and brokenness, love and lies, holiness and hiddenness.  

…Which brings me back around to wholeness and holiness.  Way back in Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve, naked and ashamed, hidden behind fig-leaved masks desperately afraid of God’s wrath.  That same guilt sometimes motivates us today.  We feel ashamed, fearful, a disappointment to God.  But God met them with the words, “Where are you?”  Not condemnation, not wrath, but a searching love, a Divine Curiosity, a Holy Empathy.

Our growing wholeness may actually come through honestly embracing the depth of our unholiness.  As we become more honest, God can see us, because we’ve come into the Light.  And then we can see God, as pure souls can.  Sometimes the addicts I see for counseling see God better than theologians I’ve known.  Brokenness can do that.

Bonhoffer writes:

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Perhaps being holy is to know increasingly that we are God’s, despite our many contradictions.  As we come out of hiding, known to God and neighbor, we become whole, pure, full of integrity, despite our continuing flaws.  We become more hungry and thirsty for the ways of God.  We show mercy because we’ve been shown mercy.  We suffer persecution because we’re willing to risk, to “dare greatly” as Brené Brown writes.  Holiness might not look like the perfectly manicured saint.  Holiness may in fact mean getting our hands and feet dirty for the sake of the other.  Holiness might actually lead us to want to lose the very selves we found when we were found.

And so, I commend to you Wholiness.  You’ll discover that it’s not really that hard.  You’ll hear Jesus saying, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”  He’s not trying to tie a noose around your neck.  He’s empowering you to live in freedom.

And so, be free.  Be wholly free.

Good theologizing means knowing YOUR story…

The late Robert Webber wrote a beautiful book called The Divine Embrace late in life.  In it, he talks of the beautiful and seamless marriage of theology and spirituality in the first centuries of the church.  In time, theology (dogma) would become a privileged task, spirituality would go underground into the monasteries, and the church would see a tragic disjunction between “God’s Story” and “my story.” Webber argues for a kind of reunion, rooted in Christian worship, where the Story is told and enacted, and where we become participants enjoying union for the sake of mission.

I’m all in on this.

I’ve known many who are skeptical of the “my story” piece, aware (as I am) of a culture of narcissism (Lasch) that is bred when people live independent of a larger, rooted narrative.  I agree.  However, I see a different kind of narcissism in those who ignore “my story” in favor of “God’s story,” people who fear the slippery slope to subjectivism, who are wary of anything therapeutic, who see the ‘fact’ of the Gospel as trumping the drama of the individual.  This latter narcissism is seen in theologically-minded men and women who don’t know themselves well enough to know their blindspots.  Their theological endeavors are sabotaged by a lack of emotional intelligence.  And without self-knowledge, their God-knowledge is ultimately impoverished.

For me, good theologizing requires the theologian to do deep work on his/her life, to know the narrative twists and turns that mirror the Gospel narrative twists and turns.  The major critique of the Pharisees by Jesus was hypocrisy.  They were stage-actors, wearing masks.  They were clean on the outside, and unclean on the inside.  They were straining gnats while swallowing camels.  This is what happens when we don’t take a deep look within, not in some hyper-therapeutic sense, but in the long, cherished spiritual traditions of the church (which will include and inform our therapeutic work).  

Augustine’s well-known prayer noverim me, noverim te (let me know myself, let me know you) roots me in the tradition while giving me permission to do the autobiographical searching required of a self-less saint.  In worship, I’m drawn into the Story, not in order to forget myself, but to find myself.  The self I “lose,” of course, is the “old self,” the “false self,” brought into the light during Confession.  At Communion, the one who was lost is now ‘found’, in union with Christ.  I become myself.  In the benediction, I’m reminded that I go with the blessing, to love and to serve.  As Webber says, we’re reunited to be re-directed.  And I need a lot of re-direction!

God’s story + my story.  Maybe theologians and therapists have a future together, after all.  


Introducing Chuck’s Newest Book: Toughest People to Love | A Video Trailer

People — frustrating, confusing, disappointing, complicated — are the most difficult part of leadership, and they challenge leaders everywhere, from leaders of many to managers of a few. In this book Chuck DeGroat addresses the flawed nature of people and offers wisdom for leaders of all types in dealing with just about anyone who is difficult to lead and to love.

Toughest People to Love explores the basics of how people “tick,” encouraging leaders to examine and take care of themselves so that they can better understand and care for others. Based on DeGroat’s wealth of experience as a pastor, professor, and therapist, this book — both wise and practical — is one that countless leaders will go back to time and again for valuable insights and renewed vision.