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).

Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.

 

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

When I read Phyliss Tickle’s The Great Emergence five years ago, I couldn’t help but think of that oft-misquoted line about Mark Twain’s imminent demise: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’d read Regele’s The Death of the Church more than a decade before, but after watching the so-called Emergent movement emerge and stumble, never quite getting traction as an ecclesial reformation, I had my doubt that the behemoth of the American Christendom church could die.

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

Intellectual critiques of church as Empire are powerful, but it often takes experiential learning for change to happen. Many pastors (like me) who were trained in the 90’s and fed a diet of Peterson, Brueggeman, Wright, and others like them learned to ask hard questions about Christianity’s collusion with Empire. Some of us experienced painful lessons in churches that were run like corporations and led by clergy-CEO’s. There might be a quiet advocacy for marginalized women, abuse victims, or the silenced, but it felt like nothing would ever change. Even in my early experience of a supposedly-accountable Presbyterian context where polity was a friend, the systems preserved the powerful and the influential. Ideas weren’t enough to change entrenched systems designed to protect the powerful.

If there is to be a great emergence of some kind, a new reformation, a dying-and-rising of a new kind of church and a new kind of Christianity, the moment is now – at least for the American church. It was never about becoming more progressive or more conservative, I don’t think – it was about us, our character, our health, our willingness to give ourselves over to the dying-and-rising necessary for growing up. The big new idea wasn’t going to change us fundamentally – it would take a revelation that we have a disease within us to wake up to our bad habits, seek out the treatment we need, and encounter profound change.

Revelations of scandal and coverup in the Catholic church have been trickling out for years. Televangelists have been exposed as counterfeits. And megachurch and movement leaders in the evangelical church like Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and Tullian Tchividjian have experienced their own reckonings for abuses of power. But these were not enough to shake us, evidenced in remarkably quick restorations inspired by a cheap form of grace. However, the revelations about Bill Hybels in this #MeToo and #ChurchToo moment are exposing much more than the ‘sin’ of one leader. The church is waking up to the nature of systemic sin, the embedded narcissism of institutions, the impotence of those called to govern and hold leaders accountable. This time it’s not just about the man – it’s about an entire system.

We’re slow to wake up. When I consult with churches entrenched in narcissistic systems and led by narcissistic leaders, I often see a kind of collective “Stockholm Syndrome” among staff and leaders. If I pull a thread and things begin to unravel, I watch as one-by-one they awaken to the toxic waters they’ve been immersed in. Narcissistic leadership in the church is especially toxic because, unlike politicians, we tend to believe that the pastor is saintly. Narcissistic pastors are adept at waving their magic spiritual wands, putting those that follow them in a trance. It is gaslighting, plain and simple, as followers, staff, and leaders question themselves well before they question the omnipotent pastor. When the thread is pulled and the systemic narcissism begins to unravel, the wake-up can be abrupt and deeply painful. Those around the narcissistic leader will question themselves, their faith, even reality as they’ve known it. This experiential crisis is the only hope for lasting change in the church.

When scandal hits Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, we take notice. But when scandal hits Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, we wake up. It hits us in the gut. Bill Hybels? Willow Creek?

The thread has been pulled, and we are all beginning to see the toxicity of narcissistic systems. Our systemic disease is no longer a story for Christianity Today, it’s a story for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Our illness has been exposed and the watching world has taken notice. The icon of ecclesial leadership has fallen, and it wasn’t just a misdemeanor offense. The sins of Hybels are not just his, but an entire system is implicated – other pastors in the system, governing leaders in the church, allies outside the church, and more. This isn’t a Hollywood scandal we can gawk at, this is our scandal, our reckoning, our moment to wake up.

Academic conversations about a great emergence or the end of Christendom have made for interesting conversation, but Willow Creek is our moment of experiential learning, our opportunity to die a painful death to our collective ego, grandiosity, celebrity worship, and more. Willow Creek is happening in small rural churches, suburban multi-sites, and city center churches, in black churches, liberal churches and evangelical networks. Many of us who’ve been working in and consulting with churches for decades have seen this virus at work, subtly spreading it’s disease. Now we see that it’s not just about a few fallen men, but about a collective.

It’s systemic narcissism.

It’s embedded in our structures, rampant in our institutions, spread throughout our networks and denominations – it’s the toxic ecclesial water we swim in. It protects the powerful, mocks and silences victims, and covers it all in a shiny spiritual veneer. It’s en-trancing effect led the evangelical church to overwhelmingly vote for a morally-vacuous narcissist whose manufactured daily reality show reveals how prone we are to being gaslit, how ignorant we’ve become to unhealth, to moral bankruptcy, to sin. It’s time to remove the blinders and look long and hard at our disease. Our collective disease.

This is an experiential moment of reckoning for the Christian church – for Catholics and Protestants, for progressives and conservatives, for each of us. We can’t not take a long hard look at our church, our pastor, our institution, our network, our denomination. We can’t chalk this up to a few bad eggs, a few big egos. We’ve got to wonder – together – how did we get here? What about us even craves narcissistic systems and leaders? Why is our American culture a perfect petris dish for narcissistic systems and leaders? How do our structures and systems cultivate this quick-spreading virus?

Our addiction to success, to grandiosity, to winning has gone unchecked. We forgot that we were followers of a suffering servant, bearers of the Cross, participants in a cruciform story. Willow Creek became the ultimate how-to-do-it-and-succeed counterfeit story. That isn’t a knock on everything it is and was, just a gut check for every pastor who thought – why isn’t my church growing like that one is OR if only we could discover their secret formula. Again, it revealed a lot about us. If you’re reading this as a post about Hybels or Willow Creek, you’ve missed the point – this is about us. Their story reveals ours.

What’s next? I hope it’s something beautiful, something remarkable – not the next-big-thing but a real death-to-resurrection story for the church in the United States. It won’t happen if we ignore our disease, though. How might you begin?

  1. Begin with you. What are your blindspots? Where are you unhealthy? How might you be a participant in systems that are unhealthy? Who in your life is brutally honest? (Ask people how they experience you) Are there repercussions for those who are honest with you?
  2. Start learning about systems – how they function in health and unhealth. Read Friedman’s Generation to Generation or Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church or Steinke’s How Your Church Family Works. Understand how your own family-of-origin story plays out in your current system.
  3. Learn more about narcissism. Become curious about your own. Follow this track and learn about narcissistic systems, about psychological abuse, about gaslighting.
  4. Seek out the resources at NetGrace, become Grace Certified, and follow and read people like Diane Langberg. Lindsey/Justin Holcomb, and Wade Mullen.
  5. Engage in 360 review processes in your church, org, networks. Invite consultants in to advise and assess the health of your church or org.

That’s just a modest start. Keep exploring, but don’t ignore the hard work of personal change and honest engagement with the systems in which you participate. Become stewards of the healthy dying – in yourself, in your church, in your org’s – so that we may become witnesses of something beautiful and new.

 

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

(v. 2)

Narcissism is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s a theological one, too. It concerns how we speak of and participate in God’s life. In the coming blog posts, I’m going to highlight how this impacts key doctrines and themes that are often used and abused by narcissists, especially narcissistic pastors, for the sake of their self-protective strategies. This in turn leads to what I often call the “narcissistic debris field” in churches and among Christians who once trusted their unassailable leader, but now question faith and wonder about God’s goodness.

I may not get to everything I’d like to get to, and I want to save some of this as further content for the book I’m writing (When Narcissism Comes to Church). But I’d love to hear how you resonate with the themes I present. How have you seen this play out? What are ways you’ve seen theology used and abused? Offer your thoughts in the comments section or via email.

This is not intended as a criticism of any particular doctrine – that would make for a much longer essay, and one I may not be qualified to write. It is to ask the questions: how do our psychological needs lead us into particular doctrinal stances? How do our self-protective strategies prompt us to re-frame doctrines? How might we become more reflective about our theology, not less, in pursuit of psychological health?

So, let’s first summarize the biggies, and I’ll go into more detail as I can in the next few weeks.

A theology of sin – It may be ironic that pastors, churches and denominations that claim “a high doctrine of sin” often protect, hide, and defend the sinner. I may see this more because of my familiarity with and work within Reformed contexts, but I’ve never seen a high doctrine of sin jettisoned more quickly than when a narcissistic pastor’s reputation is on the line. Sure, the doctrine comes in handy when the elders are tracking down folks having premarital sex or preparing their statements on homosexuality. But quite miraculously, the get-out-of-jail Grace Card seems readily available to the charismatic, grandiose, and inspiring leader who…well…probably just had a bad day. More often than not, I see sin reduced to bad behavior/actions. Sin is something he did wrong (but, of course, he repented and all is well…more on that to come). They do not see sin as a complex matrix of motivations, attitudes, and actions which are rooted in hiding, self-protection and self-preservation (Gen. 3), requiring a deep commitment to self-understanding over a long period of time. They do not have categories for psychopathology (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc) which are deeply resistant to change, constantly morphing into new shapes and identities, and requiring long-term care. Picture an iceberg where only aImage result for iceberg small shard of ice is visible above the waterline. This is the sin they treat, ignoring the massive mountain of ice beneath. And in so doing, the debris field of damage within and without is ignored.

Repentance – A shallow view of sin leads to a shallow repentance. Shallow repentance looks like admitting the troubling behavior and committing to not doing it again – case closed. And thus, shallow repentance leads to quick restoration. After all, who wouldn’t believe the sincerity of a pastor who preaches so wonderfully and charismatically, and who has influenced so many? Shallow repentance can look like blame dressed in the garments of personal responsibility – “I’m really sorry that hurt you.” Shallow repentance can also look ‘raw and honest’, at times – see my blog on fauxnerability. It can be accompanied by words that seem spiritual – “Saul lifted up his voice and wept…I have sinned” (see 1 Sam 24; Matt. 7:3). But it’s another manifestation of narcissism’s grandiosity and incapacity to connect with the true self. It is repentance as self-preservation, not as confession “with grief and hatred of one’s sin,” as the old Puritan once put it. And narcissists do this really well! Even more, shallow repentance only repents of the above-the-waterline behaviors, for looking beneath is harder, more timely, and would likely reveal a depth of deceit within that he doesn’t want to see. (PS: Notice how quickly these pastors demonize therapists, and switch from one to another in order to find one who will collude.)

Forgiveness – All of this (above) leads to an expectation that the narcissist and/or abuser will be forgiven (which also means restored). In this, the burden quickly switches from abuser to victim, as anyone impacted is asked to forgive quickly and fully out of a spiritual duty. Anything less than full forgiveness is narrated as angry, petty, grudge-holding, and un-spiritual. Within this is a pitifully vacuous theology of Grace – again, grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ah yes, it’s dressed up in pretty words like Wild, Lavish, Unconditional, Prodigious, and more. However, if you’ve done hours of interviews with staff members like I have who’ve worked under these Grace-preaching folks, it’s not pretty at all, as they will tell vastly similar stories of abuse, gaslighting, rage, manipulation, deceit, addiction, and more. Grace extended to one who is diagnosably narcissistic is indeed a reminder of God’s lavish love for every broken sinner, but is made manifest in a careful and loving process geared to each particular situation, and with expert clinical consultation.

Sanctification – I’ll need to do some more work around this, but I have a theory that Protestantism’s centuries-long failure of imagination for sanctification has led to a tragic fissure between doctrine and life, manifesting in moralism/legalism (sanctification as law-keeping) on the one end and libertinism on the other (sanctification as enjoying your get-out-of-jail-free card). I think that one of the many reasons I and others have gravitated toward the larger tradition (Catholic and Orthodox spirituality) is for a more rich imagination for spiritual maturation, for character, for discipleship – theosis! I think that one of the reasons we see narcissism so embedded in evangelicalism, from the evangelical love-affair with Trump to our obsession with grandiose pulpiteers, is because we lack a substantial spiritual theology with implications and practices for becoming more fully human. We’ve given this over to the therapeutic community, detached from the church, which privatizes the whole thing. I’ll have much more to say on this, I suspect.

Guilt and Shame – We also have an inadequate understanding of the theological and psychological dynamics of guilt and shame. I have a working theory that narcissistic pastors are driven by shame (which, of course, they don’t see) but obsessed with guilt (which weighs on them mightily, leading them to preach against it with their Audacious, Robust theologies of Grace). Often, their theologies are adopted in service of quieting the devastatingly loud voice of shame within, which they misinterpret as guilt, leading to the adoption of overly juridicial atonement theories. Because they dismiss guilt as a manifestation of the law, they fail to develop a mature conscience, and this emotional stuntedness appears in secret battles with addictions (sex/porn, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and an incapacity to relate healthily. They don’t realize that their real battle is with shame, which also exists beneath that behavioral waterline, and which drives their compensatory, grandiose, empathy-deficient false self. Every single narcissistic pastor I’ve seen shows up strikingly in a pulpit, but is stuck at a much younger emotional/developmental age in a way that creates a damaging debris field. The process of growth takes a lot of time, which makes me wonder about these quick turnarounds I’m seeing among recently scandalized pastors. Note: I’m writing for the community I know best, but I’ve seen shame-fueled NPD manifest in the theological constructs of Pentecostals and Progressives, Episcopalians and Emergent.

Ecclesiology – I’ve seen the most narcissism in contexts of church plants, non-denominational networks, and low-church settings. Yes, I’ve seen it among high-church Catholic priests I’ve seen, too. But more often than not, those with NPD like the freedom of starting something new (which means building their own leadership team, where power dynamics and inadequate training come into play). They like networks where structures are loose, polity is underdeveloped, seminary ed isn’t required, and accountability is low. They like the freedom and flexibility of creating worship experiences that center on the personality and sermon of the preacher. If they are grandiose and charismatic enough, they can and will find their way into more accountable settings, but they’ll use their power and ecclesial protectors to shield them from real accountability.

God’s Sovereignty – Often, shame-based narcissistic pastors will adopt an overly transcendent and distant theology of God. The God who “holds one over the pit of hell as a spider” (not implying Edwards was a narcissist, btw) is a theology that actually revealsImage result for god as judge one’s psychology, one’s view of himself at the depths. But out of touch with his shame, he externalizes his self-deprecation in a theology that has a “theoretically” high view of sin (see above) and an overly transcendent view of God that distances himself from real vulnerability, with God and others. The last part of the last sentence is loaded, and requires unpacking, which I don’t have the space to do here. But a narcissist is incapable of real vulnerability, and an intimate encounter with Jesus requires it. With anyone I’ve ever worked with who is diagnosably narcissistic and has, with lots of time and therapy, grown into self-awareness and maturation, there will be an inevitable question they have about whether or not they ever knew God. (I’ll remind them that God is so kind that he has always known them and never left them…it was they who, addicted to the false self, lived apart from God). Note: what psychological needs might an overly immanent picture of God emerge from?

OK, that’s a start. There is so much more ground to cover. What about a theology of gender? A theology of divorce and marriage? A theology of victimization? What else?…let me know! I wanted to begin with the big categories.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to mature theologically, as well! With John Calvin and Augustine, I believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for any healthy God-talk. When theology and psychology become friends, wonderful things happen. I could name a number of more recent books by theologians that are beautifully self-reflective. How does this post invite you to reflect more carefully on your own theology? How does the theological tradition you are in reflect your own psychological needs or dispositions? What about this post connected with you, and needs further reflection on your part?

Image result for what are your thoughts

 

 

 

 

Impotent Words, Powerful Words

I’d like to introduce you to a friend and former student of mine, Matt Casada, a counselor and writer over at www.mattcasada.com.  There are many who are blogging and tweeting today, but I like to highlight up-and-coming voices that deserve a wide hearing.  When you read Matt’s words, I think you’ll know why.  You can read more about Matt at the end of this wonderful piece.  

Impotent Words, Powerful Words

Being that both my wife and I are counselors, we are for a lack of better words, in the business of bad news and sad stories. Week after week, we sit with people working through various aches and pains, disappointments and rejections, tragedies and traumas. And yet, one doesn’t simply stroll through the valleys without noticing dark clouds as they hide the light.

A few weeks ago, we received news that two different people from two different parts of our worlds had committed suicide within twenty-four hours of one another. Full of lament, I wondered what to say to dear friends who had just lost a son and brother. I wondered if I had words worth sharing: words that mattered, words that meaningfully impacted these dear ones.

Somehow in the face of such grief and loss, it’s hard to find ways to adequately speak into the pain and agony. Though I spent two years and a good deal of money towards a masters degree that would give me tools and skills to walk with people through their pain, I felt the impotence of words while journeying into this sacred space of loss.

I had and have no words capable of making our friends less sad. I had and have no words that allow someone to come to terms with losses that were never intended to be part of our human experience. I had and have no words powerful enough to insert peace and joy into the chaos and confusion found in the dark nights of the soul.

So often as we come into this soil of brokenness, we feel the uncomfortable pressure to become emotional surgeons. Charged with the task of cutting out and removing any remnants of sadness, ache, and pain, we invalidate thoughts and feelings meant to move us towards relationship. In this role, we will inevitably use our words as tools of harm that create distance rather than a deeper sense of connectedness.

Living from this place, even the kindest words can become self-serving boundaries veiled behind the guise of compassion. Somehow in the darkest, hardest places in life, words about God’s goodness, His good plans for those he loves, and promises to pray to this good God can become trite, empty words leaving the hearer even more alone in their pain.

If the purpose of our words is to manage pain or take away sadness, they will either fall short or create distance, leaving separation, loneliness, disappointment, and rejection. And all too often, our words have this lasting impact due to our need to hide.

In response to the deep disconnect from our inherent worth, value, and dignity we have moved into places of hiddenness. Tragically, our insistence upon hiding is one of the recurring themes found throughout Scripture. Like our first parents, we find fig leaves to hide behind, lest in our fear and shame, we be exposed.

Driven by this fear and shame, we feel the incessant need to do more, to say more in order to hide and cover up our insufficiencies. And though no two fig leaves are alike, we each create a cover up story based upon our performance. Here, we must find the right words and actions, constantly censoring ourselves so as to not be exposed.

This story of hiding is your story and mine, and it is a sad story. It is a story where the relational soil intended to bring about health and peace slowly erodes due to our perpetual movements towards hiding.

But what if in some paradoxical way, the dark places offer us a deep gift of redemption and restoration? What if somehow the shadows of the valley shine a light upon our hiding narratives, inviting us towards a different, restorative way of relating?

In the daily offices, those ancient prayers prayed by those seeking to faithfully pray without ceasing, there is a small section of offering prayers for those “who have been given to me, and to whom I have been given.” What if the kindest, best word we have to offer is found in the simple act of being given?

I wonder if often the most powerful words are the ones that communicate our presence and availability. These are words that say: “I’m with you and don’t want you to be by yourself in this darkness.” These are words that say: “You matter to me. Your pain and ache matter to me. They matter enough to me that I’m willing to be with you while you’re there.”

Isn’t this the very thing that makes Christianity so powerful? The Scriptural narrative repeatedly tells of a God who uses words to emphatically remind us of His presence with and for us. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Messiah, God with us, embodies words that say: “I am with you. Literally, I am with you in your pain, your shame, and your sorrow. There is nowhere I wouldn’t go in order for you to know that I am with you.”

Do we believe that the deepest offering we have in moments of ache and joy is simply found in offering the countenance of our full self? Maybe the best thing that can happen to us is found in being given the divine opportunity to sit with our discomfort while we sit with the pain of another. For it is here that we have the opportunity to practice the power of being. Because being is something worth practicing.

ABOUT MATT

976565_10101457756730715_557964198_oOriginally from Knoxville, TN, Matt moved to Orlando, FL in July of 2010 to attend Reformed Theological Seminary. After graduating in 2012 with a Masters in Counseling, Matt opened a counseling practice in the greater Orlando area.

During his time in grad school, Matt met and dated his wife Ryan who is also a counselor in the area.

Matt works with clients facing depression, anxiety, addiction, relational problems, loneliness, life transitions, grief, and issues around eating. His writing is deeply impacted and informed by his time walking with clients as they courageously face the realities of their lives.

You can get to know Matt and read more of his words at www.mattcasada.com and on twitter @mattcasada.

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 2)

In the last post, I addressed the emotional and spiritual health of a pastor from the perspective of church history.  From that, I hope you gained some insight on the importance on pastoral soul care for Baxter and Spurgeon, Rutherford and Calvin.

But we live in different times, now.  In this post, I intend to be descriptive, and in the next I’ll be a bit more prescriptive.  For some, you’ll notice yourself in some of these descriptions.  If so, stay tuned for the next post.

Researchers on pastoral health and well-being note the significant cultural shifts that impact pastors.  And these shifts make it more difficult, I believe, for pastors to self-reflect, and to honestly answer that important question: How are you?

Let’s look at just two of these developments (and there are many, many others):

1. The professionalization of the pastoral office – notions of “success” and “performance” are quite different today.  Now I’m, by no means, fearful of well-motivated striving for success, but most pastors will never perceive themselves as a success…which may be the bigger issue. Most young pastors will leave the ministry within 5 years, in large part, because they’re exhausted, feel incompetent, or lack the support, resources, or proper training to succeed.  (As an aside, this is why Scot Sherman and I started Newbigin House).  Success is not the problem, but couched within consumer culture, pastors are inclined to believe (as most of us do) that success is graphed “up and to the right.”  In fact, I think pastors in previous generations knew well that the pastoral road was long and winding, with high high’s and low low’s, wrought with failures along the way.  Or, as a favorite writer of mine might say, it is a journey of “falling upward.”

2.  Shifts in models of training – Today, many young pastors are forfeiting seminary training for experience, often alongside another more experienced pastor.  I get it.  Many seminaries appear irrelevant.  Many seminary professors lack real church experience.  Many programs lack a vision for formation and mission while firmly rooted in theological convictions.  (I’d argue this one – among others – doesn’t).  In many seminaries (which lack adequate funding), everyone gets admitted.  Few have a definite call and a sending church.  And the coursework privileges facts over formation.  In my own research, seminary graduates felt like they were prepared to pass an ordination exam, but under-prepared in both context and character.  I often see two kinds of pastors today – those who didn’t get seminary training but have some natural leadership and ministry skills, but without theological training fall victim to pragmatic, technique-driven pastoring.   Or, those with seminary training who lack the requisite contextual and personal shaping which comes from being in the trenches.  (And both tend to be cynical of the other).  Yet, the research shows that both don’t have a great chance for longevity in ministry.

Now, you’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure.

* 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week. (Most pastors don’t feel compensated adequately for the work they put in).

* 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.

* 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

* 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.

* 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.

* 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

* 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

* 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.

* 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.

* 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church .

* 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.

* 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

* 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

And then there are the physical and emotional symptoms researchers find:

* Unusual mood swings that may include weeping without just cause, anger, or depression

* Exhaustion

* Feelings of incompetence and powerlessness

* Panic and feeling totally overwhelmed

* Avoidance strategies (addictions, fantastizing, lying, comfort foods, drinking too much, hiding in books and work)

* Fight-or-flight cycles where you rise up to intimidate and conquer others or run away from difficulties just to avoid them

* Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which can lead to a reliance on sleeping pills

* Stomach and bowel issues

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My own dissertation research confirmed this.  In fact, my own story confirms it.  Despite getting counseling, being trained as a therapist, and having good mentors, my own ministry career is one filled with up’s and down’s.  I’ve had many successes in pastoral ministry, as a therapist, and as a seminary professor.  But when I don’t look after my own soul, watch out.  I’ve found myself at various times depressed, and at others angry and reactive.  I can become shamelessly judgmental.  Or, I can take my feelings underground in an array of addictive ways.

Like you, I’d like to define myself by my achievements.  I’d like to edit out the shameful parts.  But as we’ll see in the next post, it’s precisely when we befriend that often dark and shameful ‘other side’ of ourselves that we find grace and rest.  This, in fact, is exactly why Calvin began his Institutes by hailing self-knowledge.  Our humiliation is, in fact, the pathway to exaltation.

Sound familiar?

(Stats from Barna and Pastoral Care, Inc)

Why Telling Our Stories Matters | Leaving Egypt Bonus Track

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ”  Frederick Buechner

Let me offer 7 reasons why it’s important for us to be both story-tellers and story-listeners, 7 “identity-markers” for a Storied people beginning with “We Are…”:

1.  We are Hardwired for Story – Curt Thompson writes, “the process of reflecting on and telling others your story, and the way you experience others hearing it, actually shapes the story and the very neural correlates, or networks, it represents.”  In other words, we thrive when we listen and tell.  Without it, we settle for a life of reactivity, not reflection – stuck in our reptillian brain, disconnected from both of neo-cortical brain and from other human beings.  Simply put, Story is healthy.  

2.  We are Meaning-Makers – For millennia, telling and listening to stories was the fundamental building block of civilization, the way of passing along tradition and family tales and myths.  It was a kind of social glue.  Today, our meaning-making happens in radically different, and often compartmentalized ways – seeing a therapist, connecting with an old friend on Facebook, attending church (often infrequently, and in churches where the Christian story isn’t necessarily told and practiced each week), gathering data piecemeal from Google searches, a quick coffee with a friend.  Busyness has robbed us of time.  Individualism has robbed us of community rituals.  Consumerism has redefined our purpose.  Story can set it straight.

3.  We are Honest – Story-telling requires honesty.  I have told my own story in highly edited ways, often trying to cast myself in the best possible light.  Eventually, the truth will get you.  In the recent political conventions, I heard both sides speak frequently of American exceptionalism, and I could not help but wonder if we’ve taken our own American community-story seriously, with all its good and bad – Selfless heroism and slavery, gracious giving and genocide, beauty and brokenness.  Even America has a story…and the point is that there is no shame in telling the truth.  The shame is in the radical editing for the sake of glossing over the hard times, the failures, the suffering, and the errors.

4.  We are wounded – Telling our stories heals us.  We’ve seen that it heals the brain.  But consider this.  After the Rwandan genocide, there were many therapists who visited Rwanda with new techniques for healing – quick fixes for the damaged and abused human soul.  What did psychologists and theologians eventually find?  No new techniques seemed to help.  But old-fashioned, group story-telling seemed to heal wounds.  As Rwandan men and women sat together and told of their sons and daughters, of rapes and ravaging, healing and forgiveness took place.

5.  We are storied/historical beings, not Gnostics – I give credit to Eugene Peterson for this one, as his writings on Lament reminded me that what is grieved in that ancient biblical book is actual suffering.  You see, we don’t live in a vacuum.  Modern enlightened guru’s speak of living in the eternal now, and I understand the value of living in the present moment.  But Judeo-Christian religion is storied.  We are not Gnostics.  We believe in actual events, real and felt.  This is why I feel the most orthodox Christians ought to be the most Storied of them all – rooted in narrative, God’s and ours – mindful of the need to remember…

6.  We are liturgical – In historic Christian worship, we come together to rehearse the Story.  In Confession and Assurance, in the Sermon and the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction, the whole Story is told – the story of original goodness invaded by sin, the story of dignity and depravity, of hunger and thirst, of blessing and mission.  Worship, at its best, is NOT an Oxytocin high, a praise-song-feel-good-love-fest, but an intentional engagement with God as his loving, desiring, obeying, hoping creatures, longing to be re-Storyed and re-branded in the Great Story told each week…

7.  We are commanded – I can’t help but return to the frequent admonitions to Remember…

It seems that over and again in Scripture, God’s rescued people are told to remember.  The Israelites are commanded to remember the great rescue from Egypt.  The exiles are told to remember God’s faithfulness.  Christians are given the Eucharistic meal as a meal of remembrance.  It seems telling and listening is a kind of corporate remembering for Christians in worship.

And this is why I’m both a therapist and a pastor.  Because, I’m in the business of the telling, the listening, the remembering.  I’m called to invite people out of their hurried lives into an intentionally reflective space, where God can show.

And this is why I think it’s so important that you remember.  Listen, quick-fixes are available all over today, in religious forms, in medicine, in self-help books, in internet and TV gurus.  But the unhurried process of telling and listening invites us into a kind of sacred cadence, a rhythm that can reform our hearts, and even rewire our brains.  Science and faith agree – Story is central.  We tell stories in order to live, as Joan Didion says.

Tell and listen as if your life depended on it.

 

Men, Women, and the Way of the Cross

Some pastors have been asking me to blog a bit on my thoughts re: complementarianism, egalitarianism, male/female roles, why it’s become such a polarizing topic, and perhaps even why it’s become a new litmus test of fidelity to the Gospel.  I’m hesitant to address such a big subject.  It’s so polarizing.  And it’s sad to me.  I find myself sinking into a depression when I consider some of nonsense that goes on, and how it divides a church that ought to be a witness in its unity.  But, here are some thoughts.   I’ll be highlighting some themes I think are worth considering.  Below are some of the questions I get, and some of the responses I’ve given through email exchanges, etc.  It’s a longer post, but broken into smaller chunks of Q & A.

Why do you think churches are losing men?  And don’t you believe that men are returning to some churches because they are re-asserting a man’s proper authority in the church?

I’m no church historian and I’ve heard this case made, but I have a very different take.  I think the early church was filled with courageous men who saw in Jesus the way of real manhood, for lack of a better way of saying it, the way of masculine vulnerability.  Now, some men ran for the hills.  This wasn’t the militant Divine Warrior they expected.  It was the need for power and authority that got them in trouble!  Look at Peter – he needed it too much.  So, Jesus defined the terms in John 21 for him – when you’re young, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but as you mature you’ll realize your vulnerability and dependence.  Men left the church because they no longer had this grand vision of cruciform risk-taking and suffering servanthood for the sake of witness to the way of Christ in the world to live into.  I assume this began post-Constantine, when they gained power.  Now, this attracted a certain kind of man, but I wouldn’t call this man “Christ-like.”  Power and authority became way too important to the post-Constantinian church leader.  And I think it is way too important for some male pastors today, to the point that it’s really destroying the witness of the church to a crucified God and a cruciform, self-sacrificial people.  We’re obsessed with debates about power and authority!  How sad!  Jesus was never about claiming position, but relinquished position to meet people “from below” – from a place of servanthood and vulnerability.

If real masculinity isn’t the issue, why do so many men flock to John Eldredge books, or Christian men’s conferences, or churches with hardline positions on male roles?

I definitely think masculinity is an important issue, and I’m not wanting to blur male/female distinctions for some asexual theology.  Now, I think men are hungry for some sort of vision for their lives.  We’ve largely lost the male initiatory traditions in the West, where men were sent out at an appropriate age into the wilderness to learn key things – that they’re vulnerable, that failure is inevitable, that the world is bigger than them, that they’ll need to plug into a larger source for real strength!  Sadly, men today are hungry for strength, but find a substitute in power/authority.  Eldredge got this much right.  In Wild at Heart, he tapped into this primal hunger.  But he didn’t build the narrative around Jesus, I’d say.  In my mind, the focus became on finding your “wild” self…a necessary part of the journey…but not enough.  Maybe I missing Eldredge on this…I haven’t read the entire Eldredge “canon.”  I’d reframe it by saying that ultimately, we “find ourselves” as our lives become caught up in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus…as the paschal mystery is formed inside of us.  And while I think you can find get a taste of this as you escape into solitude in wild places, more often than not we find it in the wild, risky world of relationship – where we’re compelled to deal with our own hearts.

I don’t hear this cruciform message in the Christian male pep talks today.  I see a lot of testosterone energy, but not as much Jesus.  There is too much chatter about finding yourself in your proper male headship (back to authority and power again!), as if headship (kephale) is about claiming power.  It’s precisely about sacrificing, suffering, relinquishing.  Dictators claim power.  Jesus relinquished it.  But we worship Jesus…not because he claimed it and demanded it, but because he served us, suffered for us, chose the way down.  Always be wary of pastors, male or female, who over-speak about authority, who don’t seem secure enough to be insecure (as Richard Rohr says), who need to “defend” the rightness of their positions.  You’ll know them by their love, not their defense of authority.

The older I get, the more I want to give away power, the less I want or need to be up front, the more I’m hesitant to write blogs like this.  I just want to be out doing it, living it, loving…that’s where I’m at my most “cruciform” self.  All the rest is usually my false self, my egocentric need to feel powerful, to be listened to, to be needed.  God help me.

How do you understand the proper roles of men and women?

First, I think the question is problematic.  My best sense is that the idea of “roles” is relatively new in the theological landscape (and in mid-20th century), and that role language is actually rooted in bad Trinitarian theology (the heresy of eternal subordinationism).  But my bigger concern is that roles become a conversation of who leads and who doesn’t, who can speak and who can’t, who has authority and who doesn’t.  It’s an exercise in missing the point.  This was never the agenda of Jesus.  He ticked off the religious “authorities” (always be careful when he hear that word!) precisely because he empowered the powerless – women, outsiders, the broken.  I think we’ve completely misread Paul on this stuff.  We’ve missed how he empowered women in the early church too, and we’ve focused on a few “exceptions” that served, I believe, as pastoral advice for specific temporal situations.  How are we different than the Pharisees on this?  We’ve missed the forest for the trees.  We’ve somehow come to believe that it’s “biblical faithfulness” to put women in their place when Jesus came freeing women, empowering outsiders.  I see a parallel in all our talk about the heretics “out there” – the Muslims, the Mormons, the liberals.  How have we come this far?  Men don’t need to be worried about their roles.  We need to be concerned about whether or not we’re living the cruciform life of Jesus, suffering and serving.  When this becomes about ra-ra “be-a-man” spirituality, the church has lost its witness, and the world laughs at us (and I think they ought to…)

What guidance do you give men who need a vision for their lives?

This is tough, because we’ve largely lost the initiatory tradition.  We’ve even turned baptism into a sweet ceremony instead of a very somber “death” ceremony (we go down into the waters in order to die, and we’re raised through Jesus). Classically, men needed the initiation precisely because they were in the one-up position, always prone to abuse power.  The wise tribal elders knew that the boy needed to leave home (sound like Jesus? You must leave home…mother, brother, sister) and enter the wilderness, in order to discover just how small you are.  The Israelites took this journey.  Jesus took it.  But today, we’re creating narcissistic young boys who don’t know their limitations, their smallness in God’s big world.  They feel power as they play video games, watch UFC fights, and get told, “You can do anything and be anything you want when you grow up.”  It’s deadly.  Young men have no other path than to become angry, violent.  They don’t know what to do with their strength.  I see it all the time in therapy.  Somehow, we’ve got to find ways to invite young men into the larger story of the Gospel, the suffering servant, the way of the Cross.  We need to find meaningful ways of showing them their smallness, their vulnerability, the inevitability of failure, or else they’ll find out the hard way when they get older.  By the way, I’m convinced this is why “Gospel language” is so prevalent today.  We’re dying for someone to tell us we don’t need to perform, that we can fail, that the story doesn’t revolve around us.  But this is a message that needs solid and meaningful rituals around it.  If we can re-discover the power of the sacraments and tell this story well, maybe that’s a start.

 

The Secret to Good Counseling

What is already in your client is far more powerful than anything you can give them.

Consider that for a moment.

We’ve made our words, our precise articulations, our interventions, our expertise far more important than the hidden treasure within.

In the last chapter of Leaving Egypt, I talk about theosis, the deepest truth about ourselves, that we exist in union with God.  It’s the most central theological truth I believe there is.

St. Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)  Or, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Col. 3:3)  We are the temple (1. Cor. 6:19), the paradise of God, called a “new creation” (2. Cor. 5:17).

So, counseling is easy.  It’s what Michaelangelo said about David, among his greatest works – I kept chipping away everything that was not David.

Counseling chips away at everything that is not you.  St. Paul calls this “not you” part of you the “flesh” (sarx), better understood as the false self, bearer of all of our selfish ambition, insecurity, manipulation, image-creating, and more.  Or, as Thomas Merton says, “The self that begins is the self that we thought ourselves to be. It is this (false) self that dies along the way until in the end ‘no one’ is left. This ‘no one’ is our true self. It is the self that stands prior to all that is this or that. It is the self in God, the self bigger than death yet born of death. It is the self the Father forever loves.”

This ‘no one’, of course, is quite unappealing, and so clients often sabotage the counseling process before finding this core, true self.  We’d rather live with the illusions.  As Hezekiah’s misguided ambassador’s told the truth-tellers on their road back to Egypt, “Prophesy illusions.  Tell us what we want to hear.” (from Isa. 30)

Listen counselors…you don’t need to convince your client.  You don’t need to drop great theological truths on them.  You don’t need to fight them.  You need only call out what is already there, what is most deeply there.  The Spirit living within is already praying (Rom. 8:26) in words your client cannot even articulate or perhaps even understand.  This is why when they change, often in drastic ways, you stand in amazement, knowing it had little to do with you.  After all, what could you do that Spirit could not do!?

A client once said to me, “You must work twice as hard with a client as difficult as me.”  I said, “Oh no, all I can do is offer you a taste of life like anyone else I counsel.  God’s doing the deep work already inside of you.”  She began to cry.  She said, “God cannot possibly be inside someone as disgusting as me.”

If she got this message from a pastor, she’s been lied to.  Our deepest reality is union with God.  It is a mystical union.  Juridical theologizing often misses this, and we end up feeling separated from God, and very, very guilty.  But this is “unio mystica,” as John Calvin calls it, whereby “his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together” made possible by the “secret energy of the Spirit.”  Not your grandfather’s John Calvin, is it?  This Calvin sounds more like a mystic in the tradition of Augustine, Bernard, even his contemporary St. John of the Cross, than a simple forensic-minded lawyer.

What is the secret?  That our deepest reality is hidden in Christ.  As a therapist, then, my work is to simply chip away everything that is not Christ, not the true self, not the self held safely in the Father’s hands.