Friends, what a year. I was in Pasadena from March 9-13, 2020 teaching a doctor of ministry course for Fuller Seminary on conflict, anxiety, and transforming cultures. In that course sat a physicist-turned-pastor who’d worked in Wuhan, China and who shared stories of the lab thought to be the epicenter of a growing concern. Throughout the week, our nation’s anxiety ramped up, the markets shook, and my students became more and more concerned. And so did I. By week’s end, one kind student (a pharmacist) had gathered supplies for our travels home. I flew home masked and gloved, eyes darting back-and-forth to those, like me, clueless to the calamity ahead. As of today, 333,000 precious lives lost. I couldn’t have imagined it on that lonely flight home.
In those few days, sports were cancelled and schools were closing. The seminary I work for announced it was going remote. My college-aged daughter packed her dorm room and gathered with her friends for one last sleepover before going their separate ways, imagining it’d be a temporary sojourn.
At the same time I was prepping for a book release the following week! In it, I wrote about a pandemic, an invisible and seemingly omnipresent ecclesial toxin in-between us that needed exposure to light – narcissism (and narcissistic abuse) in the church. My own hopes for a good release, a sober and serious conversation, and opportunities to share more broadly quickly shifted.
And yet, so many of you read it. And conversations did come, in the form of webinars and so-many podcasts and virtual seminars and one-on-one conversations and staff consultations and church planting network collaborations. Other significant books related to this topic released by wise sages like Diane Langberg, Wade Mullen, Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight, and more, each offering unique angles and grueling stories. And amidst Covid-19, we reckoned with the truth. We reckoned with celebrity abusers and spiritual malpractice among those some considered paragons of virtue, with an out-of-control culture of NDA’s, with the tactics and strategies of abusers and image-managing organizations, and with the psyche of those who follow and enable abusive leaders. But we also found the conversation intersecting with narcissism’s fuel for white supremacy and systemic injustice, with white evangelical’s idolatry of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism, with a history of manifest destiny from early land grabs to contemporary hunts for strategic sites by planters. We’re in the infancy of the massive reckoning, another colossal upheavel Phyllis Tickle described as a “great emergence” which will bear witness again to the way Jesus brings resurrection out of death. Our hope remains clear: Jesus, whose life and death upends empires and restores broken hearts and systems.
As the clock turns to 2021, I find myself engaged inspired by the work I get to do teaching the next generation of Christian leaders and walking alongside doctor of ministry students engaging contemporary questions at Western Theological Seminary, counseling weary souls, guiding confused church staffs, assessing planters. I get to do a lot, but I’m always asking a question related to the core of what I do. So, as I turned 50 in August, I gave extra attention to this core work, looking at might what animate my next decade of work. Time and again, questions raised by you came to the fore. And these continue to resonate: What is character? How is it formed? How do we cultivate character in leaders? If narcissism, for instance, is ‘characterological’ (shaped over time), how are the characteristics of love, peace, patience, kindness and more shaped over time? And how do I participate in the hopeful work ahead?
I’ve found myself curious about this, so much so that it might just occupy some of the space of my promised sabbatical this Fall. I’m curious about intersections of virtue ethics and trauma theory, Augustine’s Confessions and Celtic humanism, the ancient passions/vices and Jung’s shadow-psychology, contemplative theology and developmental psychology, neuroplasticity and cruciformity, and so much more. We’ll see how this unfolds. But this is the positive task. It’s easy to diagnose, to name problems. It’s sometimes harder to forge a meaningful and hopeful way forward. But I’ve been at this for so many years, and it feels like it might be the right time to pull together some of the divergent threads and see what comes of it.
So, with that I ask for your prayers. I’m always open to resources you’d want to flag for me. I’m more mindful of what I don’t know at 50 than I was at 30 or even 40. I’m also mindful that I’m situated in the body of a white, middle-aged male and subject to blindspots even years of therapy haven’t identified yet. And, so pray for grace, for curiosity, for wise companions along the way.
And I’ll pray for you, for surprising graces after a year of uncertainty and reckoning. And for Jesus, the one who makes all things new, to bring resurrection and restoration from the smoldering ashes.
Until next time, grace and peace to you, friends. Happy New Year.