When Our Heroes Fail Us

Years ago, I heard Henri Nouwen on an old recording tell the story of his path from teaching in the Ivy League to living in a community of people with disabilities in Toronto. He tells the story of a female associate of Jean Vanier who surprised him with a visit on a busy day for Nouwen while at Harvard. “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier,” she proclaimed, standing at the door of Nouwen’s residence as he anxiously asked her pardon while scurrying away to some obligation. When he returned later, the pleasant aroma of a freshly prepared meal served on his own china greeted him.

Nouwen didn’t even recognize the china. His busy life was interrupted that day by a simple greeting. He asked again why she was there, and again she said, “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier.” Vanier’s greeting was, indeed, an invitation to a new vocation for Nouwen, who did not immediately jump to it. As the story goes, a depleted Nouwen would later make his way to Trolly, France for a needed respite only to conclude the God, in fact, was calling him away from his busy and lonely life into community.

That compelling story of Vanier’s non-manipulative compassion for and invitation to Nouwen drew me to consume all-things Jean Vanier. That was in the late 90’s. Many of us considered him a living saint, and when he passed CT published a wonderful interview with biographer Michael Higgins where he noted that “…he was a man who suffused joy—joy emanated from him, joy to find him. He loved being with people. And he didn’t love being people because he was particularly sociable, he loved being with people because they helped him to realize his own humanity. They help to heal his wounds. They helped him to accept his vulnerability.” Stunningly, he went on to say, “I’ve never written a biography of someone who is so utterly without ego than Jean Vanier.”

A hero falls

I woke up on February 22, 2020 to a text from a student who’d taken a class with me on Vanier and the ministry of presence. She was distraught, dismayed. I clicked the link she sent with the title “Findings of L’Arche International’s Inquiry into Jean Vanier.” My heart sunk. The credible investigation found that Vanier engaged in six “manipulative sexual relationships” under “coercive conditions” from 1970 until 2005. Vanier, who taught so many of us about community, belonging, intimacy, compassion, touch, and vulnerability violated all of it by abusing frightened and fragile women.

Six women. Excerpts of statements they made are sickening, stomach-turning. As a therapist, I’ve counseled dozens of sexually abused women. Vanier’s twisted form of spiritual and sexual abuse can’t be rationalized away as a one-time slip up, a consensual liason. He used his status, his persona, his influence, and his charisma to lure, to justify, to silence. He used and twisted the Scriptures in some cases. A man who taught about the importance of healthy touch for the most vulnerable among us compelled vulnerable women, without intellectual disabilities, into non-consensual touch. This is no small story of an unfortunate encounter. This is a long-term pattern of spiritual and sexual manipulation, coercion, and abuse.

I’m rarely shocked anymore. I’ve been studying narcissistic abuse within churches for years, caring for those who’ve been hurt by pastors they trusted, denominations they took vows in. But when I heard this news, I was shocked. It took a full 24 hours for tears to come. And with tears, sadness, anger, even rage. I paced my kitchen saying, “Why, why, why, why, why?” I do not know the six women, but I know well the confusion abuse victims feel.

Was it me?

   I felt like I had to.

      But I didn’t say no.

          Part of it felt good.

                Did I ask for it?

                      I felt seen, chosen.

                              I feel disgusting, used.

                                        I want to be sick.

                                                 I want to die.

I remember the woman I worked with who after three years still struggled to trust me, a male therapist. She wondered if I’d violate her, perhaps when she finally let her guard down. It reminds me that this kind of betrayal of trust cuts to the core, inflicting wounds that aren’t easily healed. These six courageous women bear wounds in unseen places – soul scars – a trauma not easily healed.

Beautiful and Broken

Each of us is complicated story of beauty and brokenness. We’re image-bearers brimming with dignity and self-deceived, shame-laden saboteurs of trust. The “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, once proclaimed during a sermon, “Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade. Stand out in thy true colors.” Who among us doesn’t hide?

At the same time, aren’t we all looking for heroes of the faith? We venerate great saints, we follow charismatic pastors, we adulate popular authors we’ve never met but whose writings hold something of our fragile stories of suffering or doubt or shame. Do we not long for examples to aspire to, exemplars of a better way?

Just recently, I taught a course on Vanier and the ministry of presence. In a lecture a remember saying something to the effect, “I know we’re all sinners in need of grace, but Vanier may be the exception.” I was joking, of course, but was I really? When I was a young pastor, I had a little wall with pictures of my heroes – Buechner and Peterson and Nouwen and Merton and, well, Vanier. Scrolling through social media, I read cynical takes about how Vanier’s fall is proof that, once again, no one can be trusted. I see one friend chastise another grieving friend for making an idol of Vanier. Someone parodies the Hebrews 11 “heroes of the faith” passage by filling in the names of fallen leaders of the church over the last few years. I think back to my course and with no small amount of shame I recall how glowingly I spoke of Vanier and wonder if I set up my students for heartbreak.

We are beautiful and broken people in a beautiful and broken world. I long for the “all things new” during times like this more than others. I turn 50 this year, but sometimes I also long for the wide-eyed idealism of my 20’s. I remember lauding Reformation hero Martin Luther as a seminary student before finding out about his anti-semetic writings. I was inspired by the Anabaptist theologian JH Yoder’s vision of a peaceable kingdom before I learned that he did violence to the souls of women. What do we do with slave-owning theologians and institutions as well as unfaithful icons of racial justice? And how do we hold the revelation of a good friend’s double life, a pastor’s suicide, a mentor’s disappearance from our lives?

Living in the already-and-not-yet is painful. Creation groans, and we along with it.

Pain and Resolve

After the revelation of Vanier’s double life, a friend texted me saying, “We’re all just a mess.” Yes, we are. We’re all beloved dust, jars of clay. I believe this. But, it’s important not to dismiss the particularly devastating impact of a person who abuses his power. Indeed, we’re all sinners in need of grace. But not all of us are trusted megachurch pastors or movement leaders, bishops or bestselling authors. When an influential pastor or leader uses his position of power to lure women into sexual relationships, this is a profound violation of personal trust, ecclesial vows, and a sacred call. We rightly call it abuse, even an abuse of power.

I’m reminded of the words of Ezekiel:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)

I never thought I’d quote this passage in a piece about a beloved mentor-from-afar like Jean Vanier, but times like this require a deadly seriousness. Writing to a community who thought of their founder as a saint, Tina Bovermann of L’Arche USA noted that the work of discovering the truth about Vanier came with a “with a mix of pain and resolve,” pain for both the victims and for those who’d likely be crushed by the revelations, and resolve “because truth matters…because the real value of every person matters.”

When leaders betray us, particularly powerful and influential ones, we spend a lot of time jockeying about in conversations about the leader’s fall and far less holding in prayer and compassion those who are survivors of his abuse. Even more, organizations and churches sometimes default to self-protection, offering confusing rationalizations or hushing victims with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). In the last year, we’ve seen significant examples of influential churches and networks fumble opportunities for a full reckoning, transparency, and compassion. And yet, Saturday’s revelation about Jean Vanier, while heart-breaking, came with the gift of hope. L’Arche confronted these allegations directly, commissioning a thorough investigation even at the expense of the legacy of its founder and the disruption they’d endure. They chose transparency over obfuscation.

Perhaps, a new legacy emerges from this, a legacy of “pain and resolve” which challenges churches and Christian organizations to, once-and-for-all, dismantle toxic cultures of celebrity and create cultures of safety, humility, and cruciform love. Perhaps our grief can propel hopeful action, manifesting in cultures and systems that are accountable, honest, and healthy.

In a lovely piece written just after Vanier passed, Bethany Fox wrote of L’Arche, “Being a community that honors the embodied and emotional aspects of being human is part of what makes this a place to live that—while imperfect—becomes a ‘school of love’ even in its difficulty.” Though Vanier has fallen in the eyes of most, the “school of love” L’Arche models lives on. L’Arche was never about him, after all. It was always about its core members and a unique ‘school’ where mutual respect, self-giving love, and holy reverence for the image of God in each of us is displayed.

And, it’s an invitation to all of us to become students in this school, imperfect as it is, but aspiring toward a better humanity. L’Arche shows us, in their pain and resolve, just how we love amidst difficulty – with honesty, integrity, transparency, for the sake of the most vulnerable. That is a hopeful takeaway in a moment that feels heavy with grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

The older I get, the more the old saying of Jesus “Physician, heal thyself” makes sense. I’ve spent more than two decades doing a lot of caring. But the more attend to myself, the more sadness I find, the more anxiety I feel, the more trauma I notice. The more I realize that I desperately need to take time to slow down, to feel, to notice the places of pain and, more importantly, the places of sacred presence, remembering that Jesus dwells amidst it all, loving each and every weary and wounded part. 

Part of growing up is becoming aware, and at least a part of this is choosing to feel your own pain and the pain of the world around you. Of course, in typical either-or ways, some choose to bury their heads in the sand while others choose complete immersion in the pain. It has always interested me that Jesus chose neither extreme. How many people in pain did Jesus walk by during his earthly sojourn? Many. How many could he have healed with a better time-and-ministry management strategy? Many. But neither did he refuse to engage the pain – he absorbed the sin of the whole world into his own body!

Somehow, we engage – sometimes at great cost – but we might also take the counsel of St. Teresa – to measure our efforts so as to not exhaust ourselves.

I weighed this over the past weeks as I grieved the untimely death of my father-in-law, just months after my mother-in-law. I felt a confusing array of emotions in me – sadness, anger, relief. We also celebrated my birthday, our 25th anniversary, and my daughter’s high school graduation with a hastily planned and wildly providential trip to Hawaii, made possible because my father-in-law’s passing caused us to cancel a long-planned trip and opened up substantially cheaper rates for flights to Hawaii. How could I hold joy, sadness, gratitude, anger, joy, relief, and confusion in this moment?

But then, the pain on the world doesn’t pause when you take a vacation. Each day, our family would process what seems to be a daily torrent of sad, confusing, enraging, and demoralizing stories. My daughters – 18 and almost 17 – are of a generation of information deluge. I don’t know how they can possibly process everything they take in. I want them to choose to hold the particularly painful stories with some kind of sanctity. And I know they wrestle with the obvious tensions. They feel, in their own young bodies, the weight of Christian school classmates who’ve told fellow students of color to “go home.” Like me, they struggle with the daily moral contradictions of political leadership. I’m a student of narcissism and trauma and a counselor to many – hell, I’ve got a book coming out on narcissism -and I barely feel capable of psychological and spiritual resilience myself, at times, as I witness this daily decomposition of human dignity and character. Somehow, each of us must assess our own threshold of trauma tolerance, and do the careful work of engaging, but also appropriately disengaging (without dissociating).

Physician, heal thyself. In other words, take care of you. Guard your heart. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowds for silence, for intimate conversations with friends, for a meal. Rest. Eat. Exercise. Vacation. Be silent in prayer. Breathe. Listen.

At least a part of what it means to be “in Christ,” I suspect, is to recognize you’re in Christ, not Christ himself, not the savior of the world. Don’t hesitate to enter the painful world and speak truth. But don’t be fooled into thinking your participation is the hinge upon which everything swings. The older I get, the more I realize that there was pain before me, that there is pain today, and that pain will outlive me. All of creation groans, longing for redemption. I do want to be present to it, but I also do realize that I’m limited. If I’ve learned anything from studying narcissism, abuse, and trauma, it’s this – if our wounds go unhealed, we will distribute our woundedness to others. Pain that isn’t healed is hurled in every direction. 

Take good care, these days. Invest deeply and passionately, and rest wholeheartedly. Pay attention, not just to what’s on the news, but to what you need. And always, rest deeply as the beloved one, held in unfathomable love forever.

Peace.

Believing Women in an Age of Narcissism

(Trigger Warning: If you’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, please bear in the mind that this piece includes disturbing details of sexual trauma)

Step back from the political drama for a moment and consider a woman I saw for counseling years ago (with details changed). She’s 39, and I’ve just officiated her wedding to a really extraordinary man. She didn’t think she’d get married, but then he came along – the one she never expected. She’d actually waited; she was a virgin, though she’d rather say that many years before – perhaps around 7 or 8 years old – she felt a strange call to be a nun. She was quite content single, and single-mindedly devoted to friends and faith in a God whose love she experienced through the mystical lens of Song of Solomon. But then he came along.

I pronounced them husband and wife, we all celebrated, and they set off for an adventure among the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. It was early fall – the colors were bursting and radiant – their hopes were high. That night, my phone rings. It’s 11:30pm or so…I’m about asleep. He is in a panic, “Chuck, something is wrong with Sondra. I don’t know what’s happening right now.” I hear moaning, howling…dark, disturbing sounds, and I realize it’s her. “We began making love. I was gentle. I was. We felt so connected. And then I touched her, you know…and her body went catatonic. She froze. And then in an instant she screamed ‘Get the fuck off of me.'”  

This isn’t Sondra if you know Sondra. My training as a clinician tells me she’s experienced a body memory, a memory not accessible by mere mental recollection but triggered often by a touch or sensation. Sondra and I spoke briefly, as I asked her to breathe and as we did a practice to get her reconnected to her core self. We decided they would stay and enjoy the beauty of that area, but wait on sex until we could meet again. Jeff was so tender, so understanding, so self-sacrificial. They returned a week later.

Fast-forward a year into therapy. Sondra’s memory was of a time when she was maybe 6 or 7, recalled from the feel of her surroundings and the room she lived in while their family weathered financial struggle and stayed with her Grandparents. That moment a year before had triggered a long-lost memory of a shadowy figure, the smell of cigar on his breath, touching and even penetrating the innocent little girl several times over months of living there. It was her Grandpa. Her favorite Pa-Pa. The gift-giver. The cuddler. A sexually violent and abusive man.

Fast-forward two years. She’s ready to speak. Grandpa is a legendary missionary in their denomination, still a frequent speaker in churches throughout their region. At their local breakfast establishment, he’s sometimes called “The Mayor.” By now, Sondra has told her mother, her older brother, and some close friends. She has support. We have a plan. With her mother and brother and me by her side, Sondra will confront her Grandpa.

“Liar,” he says. “You lie. Why? How could you do this to me?” He storms out. Sondra was ready for this, but she was not ready for the phone calls she’d begin to receive from Grandpa’s friends and allies.

Whore.

Liar.

Bitch.

Ungrateful granddaughter.

Apostate.

His pastor calls Sondra. He isn’t curious about her. Rather, he begins by talking about the many contributions Grandpa has made to the Kingdom and community. “Surely, you’d want to think twice about making dubious accusations from so many years back. Our memories are quite fallible, Sondra. And you’ve always had a penchant for the dramatic.”

Sondra is just one story of dozens I’ve held. As I said, I shifted details to protect her. I’ve seen this same scenario play out time and again, though. Don’t believe her. It happened so long ago. She’s not credible. 

I believe, because I’ve walked alongside women who hold these stories so tightly for fear that telling them would only unleash a torrent of accusation. When a woman tells a story, she often does so after slow and deliberate consideration. Many know the risks. But they feel like it is time…perhaps many years later…but it’s time for them. With that trauma, I don’t judge their timing. Who would?

Memories of sexual trauma from long ago can emerge in an instant. During sexually traumatic experiences, our psyches have an extraordinary defense mechanism – we can psychologically/emotionally disconnect from the moment. An hour later or a day later or even 20 years later, we might remember – that happened? Memories can surge back in a moment, triggered by a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch, a picture, a look.

++++

My policy is believe first. In 20-plus years of pastoral and clinical work, I’ve only seen one case of false accusation. The reality is – false accusations happen only rarely, and often under certain conditions. Thankfully, a thorough process revealed a self-serving lie by a cruel (false) accuser, whose lie came at no cost to the accuser personally, a reality almost every accuser can’t relate to. There is always a cost. As we watch the news unfold right now, we see the great cost to Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser. I’m also quite sure the accusation(s) must be jarring to the judge and his family, as well, but anyone walking into one of the most powerful, lifetime appointments in government ought to expect anything along the way. As I’ve said time and again to those who feel they are being falsely accused, participate (humbly!) in a process. One’s character is often revealed in these trying moments.

What do I mean by believe first? Would I deny due process? Absolutely not. But the problem is that we often do not DO process. We defend and self-protect and malign, but rarely do you see those accused humbly engage a process. As in the very public case of Dr. Ford right now, the response by many Republican defenders of the judge shows just how de-humanizing and humiliating this can be for a credible accuser. The lack of basic emotional intelligence and compassion is astounding. The politicization of a woman’s story on both sides is horrifying. I’d expect her to be asking: Is anyone really for me in this? Most engaging in this current judicial firestorm couldn’t pass a basic pastoral care class I offer.

By “believing” do I mean affirming her story with utter, infallible certainty? No. Often, those who accuse are themselves fuzzy on details and mired in self-doubt. No, belief begins with empathy. It means holding their story, their experience. In clinical work, it often does not mean bringing an immediate accusation. As in the case of Dr. Ford, a memory revealed years back will take time to process and unfold. The survivor will wrestle with all kinds of feelings – self-doubt, self-blame, confusion, rage, disconnection. It takes time to get to the point Dr. Ford got to. But, given the public details, hers is a credible accusation. And despite disagreements around timing, she deserves a thorough process. If we are not first human, what have we become?

Remember how the women who brought accusations against Bill Hybels were villainized? I suspect it’s difficult for us to believe that well-established “family” men are capable of these things. But as one who holds many “secrets” from many confidential sessions over the years, I’ve seen many, many men who’d otherwise be viewed publicly as saintly reveal past indiscretions and private battles. Even the most polished and put-together can be deeply broken. Have we not learned that lesson?

And a final word to wrap this up – I have seen more than a dozen men who’ve actually revealed to me an instance of abusing or assaulting a woman in the past. Through painful self-revelation, they slowly come to grips with their own brokenness and violence. We process, with grief and repentance, until they are ready to do the hard work of contacting their victim/survivor (unless I find myself in a case where mandatory reporting is demanded). In most of the cases I’ve been involved in, when the men called women who they’d hurt in the past they were surprised by the responses. In a few cases, the women had no recollection (and at least one entered therapy to deal with that, because this is how memory works). In a few more, the women remembered, but had minimized it or blamed themselves. Still, in others there was immense gratitude, relief, and even some measure of forgiveness. These were all painful processes which could not be microwaved, but required slow, thoughtful engagement.

Believing an accuser’s story is a tricky thing, in other words. We’ve got to be willing to move with patience and empathy into the slow process of disclosure, mindful that maligning or accusing only further solidifies a story she (or he) tells herself – that she’s the problem. And in this culture of narcissism, particularly in the ecclesial and political spheres, that’s even more tricky. If narcissism is characterized fundamentally by a protection of power and an absence of empathy, then we are seeing this on full display among those who are supposed to be wise leaders. And sadly, we are living in a time when it seems that only a few “wise people think before they act; fools don’t—and even brag about their foolishness” (Proverbs 13:16).