#Ferguson: A Gospel Issue

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
-Langston Hughes

It was in my college Liberation Theology class back in 1990 that I first discovered different ‘Gospel’ perspectives – perspectives from those steeped in death and persecution, suffering and scarcity.  We spent evenings at my professors house reading and discussing Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and a host of African and Asian liberation theologians.  It may have been the first ‘aha’ moment for me, the first realization that the Gospel wasn’t just about getting saved and voting pro-life.

A next significant time came during the year I lived with Tom in the hood in Chicago.  Though I grew up on Long Island with great diversity, I was a suburban kid, mostly protected from the issues Tom grew up with.  Tom was black, and he showed me and told me how different it was for him to leave the apartment and walk down the street.  Here again, I was challenged to wrestle with whether or not the ‘Gospel’ had something to say about Tom’s everyday fear.

In the past 20 or so years, it was been those who I pastor as well as clients I’ve cared for who’ve helped me understand that my life, as a white man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife and daughters, is and will always be different…and privileged.  Even in our mostly Asian neighborhood in San Francisco, we were beloved, celebrities in a way.  I haven’t experienced the kinds of things I’ve heard described by Tom, and by many folks I’ve counseled and cared for.  I haven’t been ignored by waitresses in restaurants, targeted by suspicious law enforcement officers, followed, stared down.  I haven’t been overlooked for a job or a loan.  I’ve rarely felt altogether different.  I haven’t been labeled as “angry” or walked down the street anxiously or wondered what I should wear or how quickly I could walk or what might make me look like a criminal to another.  These have not been my worries.  But they have been Tom’s, and many, many others.

What I’ve seen is that in my privileged white world, the ‘Gospel’ is domesticated.  Ferguson is not on our radar.  I’d dare say for many white evangelicals, today is just another day.  The real scandal would be if some prominent evangelical wrote a pro-LGBTQ book, for instance.  The Gospel is tamed, reduced, narrowed.  It becomes a balm for guilt-ridden souls who crave 140-character tweets reminding us that we’re accepted, but it hardly seems applicable to what is happening in Ferguson.  And, after all, isn’t what is happening there really just about some angry black folks who’ve, once again, made a much bigger deal out of something that clearly was the result of a young black man’s aggression against a police officer?

We don’t get it, friends.  And we can’t, and won’t, until we walk a hundred miles in the shoes of someone very different than us or until our friendships reflect the diversity of society.  Statistics show, in fact, that we have the least diverse social network – 91% white, and only one-percent black.  We naively think that changes in voting rights some forty years ago solved the problem of race.  And as Christians, we become incensed at a Facebook dialogue about abortion or homosexuality, but hardly understand the fury of young black men and women in the streets last night who feel so powerless that throwing stones and burning things provide some outlet, albeit a tragic one, for a voice.  As MLK Jr said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”  But we’ll say, “You see…they are so angry.  Why do they always have to make it about race?”  I’ve heard this so much that my stomach turns and I’ve finally begun calling people out.

This leads me to the important point that Ferguson is a Gospel issue.  Yes, it’s a justice issue and a race issue.  But it’s a Gospel issue.  Now, if you have a tamed and domesticated Gospel tuned into your particular moral litmus test issues, you won’t see this.  But St. Paul did.  For St. Paul, the core of the Gospel was about reconciliation – God and sinner, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free (Gal. 3:28).  This was the necessary implication of justification by faith alone.  Justification was never simply a get out of jail free card, an individualistic guilt-appeasement balm.  Justification opens the gates to freedom, to reconciliation, to wholeness inside and out.  It puts into contact with the outsider, the person who’ll make us feel uncomfortable, the different – a sexual, racial, and geographic outsider (Acts 8), for example.  It puts us into contact these cut-off parts of ourselves.  It levels the playing field; the powerful are brought down and the powerless are brought up.  And the Gospel invitation, particularly for those of us with privilege, is to go down willingly, to be crucified with Christ, to be the ptochos – impoverished, broken, brought to the end of ourselves, dying like that grain of wheat that must fall to the ground to bear fruit.  All for the sake of the other.  We must go, as hard as it is, first to listen.  We must just begin with listening, though our souls have become so attuned to the endless political chatter and certitude of the Hannity’s and Maddow’s.

Jesus would have been in Ferguson last night.  He wouldn’t have paid a whole lot of attention to a decision on the indictment.  He knows better than any of us how “facts” can be aligned with whatever narrative is preferred.  He wouldn’t have been wearing a hat or t-shirt for a particular side.  No, I think Jesus would have been there standing alongside the family of Michael Brown, holding them, crying with them.  I think Jesus would sit with Officer Wilson, naming the fear and anxiety and anger he was feeling, and reminding him that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  I think he’d be with young men and women who went to bed confused and ashamed that they had participated in violence, looted stores, and started fires.  He’d say, “I get it.  I see the anger.  I’m not going anywhere.  Let’s talk.”

Jesus crosses the barriers.  His Gospel is not domesticated, it is invasive, courageous, pursuing.  God became man, crossing the ultimate barrier, crossing into death, going down, going further than I’d ever want to go.  But we need to, now, with courage.

Far more hinges on how we meet one another from here on out than on an indictment in Ferguson, MO.  Until my white (mostly evangelical) brothers and sisters are as impassioned by this as they are the next Rob Bell book, I don’t see much changing.  And when I say that, I’m not saying that you need to get behind an indictment but get behind your black brothers and sisters, to get into their worlds, their realities, their sufferings.  I’m saying we need to ask questions, to listen, to exercise holy curiosity.  I’m saying that we might have blindspots, might not see so clearly.  I’m saying that we really just don’t get it, at a fundamental level, and must make ourselves available for metanoia.  I’m saying that we need to knock on a black neighbor’s door and say, “I’m sorry I’ve never come by.  I’m confused by everything that is going on, and I wonder if I’m missing something.  I need your help”  We are addicts of privilege and power, and it’s time we acknowledge that we need help.

If we can be fueled by the same passion that led Jesus to cross the ultimate barrier and St. Paul to leave the nest of Jerusalem and cross barriers that left him imprisoned and reviled and ultimately murdered himself, perhaps then we will see the Good News through Isaiah’s eyes:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 The effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isa. 32)

I pray for peaceful habitation, for quiet and secure dwellings in Ferguson today.

the problem with loving god, but not loving yourself… (pastors and theological eggheads, take note!)

Love yourself.  It’s championed as the pathway to happiness and gratitude by some and scoffed at as the pathway to narcissism and godlessness by others.

But check this out.  Bernard of Clarivaux, the towering 12th century Cisterian abbot, advisor to the Pope, mystical writer, and one of the most significant voices in church history sees four stages of growth and maturation for Christians.  Just wait for what comes last…images

  1. “Love of Self for One’s Own Sake.” This is where we all begin…trying to make life happen on our own.  We try to give ourselves the love we need.  We try to find it in a thousand other substitutes.  But we blow it.  We stumble and fail and sabotage our happiness.  This kind of self-love is ultimately self-sabotaging.
  2. “Love of God for One’s Own Sake.” Much like the first step in AA, we admit we’re powerless.  Our acknowledgment opens us up to a relationship with God, but this stage is much like a child relying on a parent for help.  We go to God for the help we need, but we don’t yet know God intimately or experience union in any kind of deep way.
  3. “The Love of God for God’s Sake.” In this stage, we turn our attention to God.  In fact, we may talk much more about being God-centered.  I’ve lived much of my life here as a good “Reformed” boy.  Finding Reformed theology was like a second grace, and I devoured books about God’s character.  I kept saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about GOD!” We might even become a bit arrogant, and dismiss any talk of self-love as a sinful remnant of the past.  Our focus on God is an important development in our maturity, but if we get stuck here we’ll miss out on the promised union.
  4. “Love of One’s Self for God’s Sake.” Here we discover we’ve been created for intimacy.  God turns the tables on us.  He shows us how delightful we are. He convinces us that we’re worth getting to know.  We discover we’re loved and loveable. We learn intimacy, surrender, and enjoy contemplative union.  We actually get to know God in a far more personal and intimate way.

Are you on this particular journey to self-love?  For many of us theological egg-heads, the last movement might be the most critical.  It may also be the most frightening.  Because, as I’ve gotten to know myself and many of you, we’ve focused on God precisely because we didn’t like ourselves.  We found a theology that told us how bad we are.  And, it even helped a bit with our deep sense of shame and guilt.  But we find ourselves constantly returning to our old, dry wells.  Our God-focus, though it helps at times, doesn’t make our addictions go away, doesn’t curtail our sometimes scary anger, doesn’t necessarily lead to humility.

Take heart.  Bernard says, “God wants you to stop, to relax, to allow yourself to be embraced. He’s smiling at you.  Yes you.  He actually thinks you are worth loving, worth knowing.  And he won’t stop telling you how much he adores you.”

This isn’t hyper-therapeutic, new-agey spirituality.  This is ancient wisdom for hungry and thirsty souls.

Shame and Grace in the Pastor’s Life

The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.  Sad to say, the people who seem to lose touch with themselves and with God most conspicuously are of all things, ministers. Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir

A friend emailed the other day with a tragic story of a pastor-friend whose recent affair has blown up his family.  In my world, this is an everyday occurrence, and one I can become numb to until it hits home, even closer – to a friend, to a student, to myself.  And then I’m pummeled again with the reality that I’m human, you’re human, we’re human.  We’re fragile.  We’re afraid.  We’re ashamed.

But are we allowed to be?  To be sure, one of the characteristics of most pastors I know is a highly-honed and well-developed Inner Critic which will not allow him or her to fail.  Let’s not be naive – we get into this profession because we’re prone to want to perfect others, and this is part-and-parcel of our own perfectionism.  Few pastors I know are immune to shame and guilt, and they’re on the sociopath spectrum.  So, let’s acknowledge first that we’re really hard on ourselves.  We work hard to please, to perform, to compartmentalize every seemingly unacceptable part of ourselves.

But let’s take it an (honest) step further – we’re not allowed to be human.  Few of us will keep our jobs is we dare say what we secretly think, feel, and do.  As Wayne and Hands say in Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy, most pastors hide behind the masks of hero or clown.  The hero will always come through.  The clown will always make people feel good.  And with good reason.  People want our personas.

To do what we do, we need to cut ourselves off from our hearts, from our stories.  That surge of anxiety or emptiness that emerges from deep within as we’re reading Scripture before our sermons – well, stuff it back down.  Don’t dare bring it up, then, there, anywhere.  Or, if you do (like, with a therapist, perhaps), make sure you couch it in the most optimistic way – “This doesn’t happen very much…I mean, I’m really pretty stable, but every so often…”

We do everything we can to transcend our humanity.  Though we may say, “Gospel, gospel, gospel,” we live far from “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And so we perpetuate Adam’s first sin.  Instead of embracing our humble human estate, we feel shame at it, and compensate.  Rather than listening to our aching bodies and souls, we reject them in favor of the glittering, always-on persona.

The Catholic theologian Johannes Baptist Metz offers us a way back home, to our bodies, to ourselves:

Understood correctly, our love for ourselves, our “yes” to our self, may be regarded as the “categorical imperative” of the Christian faith: You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself! Our self-acceptance is the basis of the Christian creed. Assent to God starts in our sincere assent to ourselves, just as sinful flight from God starts in our flight from ourselves.

Could we be ok being human?  With whatever that entails?

It’s really hard for me.  Lately, I’ve been off.  Just off.  I traveled a lot, speaking here and there.  I felt present and whole for a while, and then I started getting tired, and anxious, and disconnected.  I went into a kind of survival mode to survive it.  I remember the night this started.  I was in a Chicago hotel bar having missed a flight to a gig I was supposed to do.  Part of me was grateful to have a respite from being ‘on’.  I drank a few too many martini’s, ate a crappy meal, and woke up feeling worse the next morning.  Headache.  Nauseous.  I raced to the airport to get my break-of-dawn make-up flight only to realize it was cancelled.  I sat in O’Hare, almost incapable of self-care or self-reflection.  I simmered in anger, anxiety, and nausea.

For the next few weeks, I did my best to survive – to give decent talks, to be present to people, to fulfill my obligations.  A friend of mine talks about performance in baseball language.  I wasn’t swinging and missing, but I was hitting singles and doubles.  My Inner Critic was mad at me.  I wasn’t ok with this.  But even in regular times of quiet and contemplative space, I couldn’t get beyond the war between my Inner Critic was waging inside.  And so, I continued to feel worse – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

In these times I feel powerless to stop the inner torrent of shame.  Do you?  Am I alone in this?  The onslaught of people dependent on me (including my family) didn’t allow me much space to listen, to sit, to be.  I brought my anxious, scattered self on a trip to Europe with my family, and it jolted and jerked within in a way that left me tired, restless, anxious, angry, and resentful.

All throughout, the deeper voice within – God’s voice – kept saying, “So what?  You’re human.  It’s ok.  Your talk stunk.  Your failure to get back to people promptly disappoints.  Your anxiety feels horrible.  OK.  So, there you go.  You’re not superhuman.”

Can we listen to that still, small voice within whispering grace?  Can I?  Can you hear that voice, or is the noise too loud?

And even more, is there a limit on our grace – to ourselves, to others?  Because, believe me, pastors feel that there is a limit.  Perhaps we can tell you about a struggle with wanting the nice car our neighbor has.  Perhaps we might even admit an occasional battle with generalized “lust.”  And nowadays, we’ve developed a whole ‘gospel’ language that allows for general self-disclosure – “I’ve found my esteem in man and not God.”  But let’s be clear, here:  This does absolutely nothing at the soul level, and may only endear us to those who say, “Oh, our pastor is soooo honest.”

Is there a limit?  Can we say more?

Are there places where we can name the constant, burdening anxiety that drives us to drink too much?

Are there places where we can name the terrorizing rage we feel within at certain people?

…the emptiness we feel when we preach?

…the chasm between us and our spouse, which prompts us to wonder if we could get divorced and still remain in our position?

…the online chatrooms and peepshows and porn?

…the personal financial crisis we’re having as we cast vision for our church’s fiscal health?

…the health issues which seems to arise from our constant anxiety?

…the powerlessness and subsequent rage of being overlooked as a woman in ministry, or racial or ethnic minority?

…the secret you’ve kept despite being married, about being gay, about being in love with your best friend?

…the suicidal plans you’ve dreamed up as an escape from the prison of your life and ministry?

…the feeling of utter incompetence in your role?

…the loneliness?

Can we bring these things to our leadership team?  Our elders?  The church planting committee?

Most pastors I know would offer a resounding NO.  It’s not safe.  It’s not ok.  And so we hide.  And if and when something comes out that reveals our hiddenness – an indiscretion, a scandal – we’re targeted with people’s anger and disappointment.  I know few leaders in these situations who have said, “My church leadership actually came to me and said that they feel somewhat responsible for cultivating an atmosphere where I couldn’t be honest.”

So…finally… are we being thoughtfully and wisely preventative as churches?  Let me offer a few thoughts.

– Does your church leadership have a open-door, no-judgment policy for your pastors if she or he ever needs to come clean?  (This does not mean no consequences…but it does mean a safe, non-judgmental place where the pastor can be heard.)  Will counseling be paid for?  Is therapy even ok?

– Do you have a regular sabbatical plan?  Do pastors expect to have the church’s support to get away every 5-7 years with the blessing of the church and with some financial help, as well?

– Is there attention given to the daily rhythms of pastoral life, with ample time away for solitude, with the phone and email off?  Is this ok?  Or will it be perceived as lazy by the church and its leadership?

– Is there a process or people who can give feedback when they sense the pastor is not very present, or angry, or anxious, or checked out, or too busy?

– Is there an expectation that the pastor is connected to another pastor, a spiritual direction, a coach, and/or a therapist…and is there ongoing attention paid to how that conversation is going?

– Is there an atmosphere where the relational strategies (for good or ill) of the pastor and leadership can be talked about, owned, acknowledged, and spoken about with candor and grace?

As Buechner says, there are moments in which for better or for worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us, and around us, and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too.

May we be attentive to these moments, as disruptive as they are.  May we see the moments when we’re humbled, humiliated, and HUMAN as sources of life and depth and as opportunities to be known, and not as moments to run from.  God give us grace for this hard road.