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.

Where are you?

In that great original story of Genesis, God makes an extraordinary world, places extraordinary creatures in it, and crowns it with his greatest creation of all – human beings – calling them “very good.”  He tells us who we are – made to be in relationship, tasked with the care for all the world, invited to enjoy the paradise and expand it over the entire earth.  The grandest party of all…

…but soon we learn, it is not to last.  Humanity’s first family got suckered into the great lie – a lie about their very identity.  Thomas Merton once said that sin is a case of “mistaken identity concerning our very selves.”  Adam and Eve were offered a new car, a 10,000 square foot home with a pool, a lucrative book deal, their very own reality show…

…and they took it.  We know the rest of story.  Broken dreams.  Thwarted hopes.  Disappointment, suffering, even death.

A case of mistaken identity.  And we’ve lived this story ever since.

Yet, the words we hear from God as he looks for his beloved children in Genesis 3 are, “Where are you?”

Not a demanding, “Get your asses out here.”

Not an angry, “You’re in big trouble.”

Not some guilt-manipulating, “I can’t wait to tell you what you did wrong!”

No.  He says, “Where are you?”  A cry of love.

It’s the very thing we ask ourselves, at times.

I’ll find myself playing a thousand other roles, trying to please, attempting to justify myself, clamoring for approval, or pleasure, or significance, or influence…

…and God will eventually intrude, saying, “Where are you, Chuck?  Where did you go?  This isn’t like you.  Who have you become?  I love you, but I hardly recognize you.”

That’s the essence of sin, after all.  It’s not about some bad behavior.  It’s about losing our way, losing our bearings, losing our sense of identity – a case of “mistaken identity,” as Merton says.  And it happens so easily.

We’re sucked in to an enticing scheme to make some big money.

We’re offered a big job with lots of perks.

We’re enticed by the glance of an attractive person sitting across from us.

We’re energized by the angry energy that comes with feeling ‘right’.

We’re drawn into the animated emotional gravitational pull of a charismatic leader.

We’re crushed into submission by a vocally powerful person in our lives.

And God says, “Where are you?”

Which means, he’s looking for you.  That’s the good news, you see.  Because you feel as if you’re worthless, a sellout who has betrayed your first love.  But God pursues.  And pursues.  And pursues.

Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.”  Isaiah 30:18

Because he wants to know you. Not your false self.  Not your concocted version of an acceptable person.  Not your surgically-altered self.  Not your religiously adorned self.  Not your philanthropic sacrifice.  Not your doctrinally-settled self.  Not your emotionally high self.

No, he longs to know you. Can you imagine it?  Because the you that you know is not that impressive, right?  It’s average at best.  Quite unappealing.  Certain not to impress.  Lackluster.  Ordinary.  Insecure.

God sent his son not to save your false self.  Your false self spends its energy in self-justification, in an exhausting attempt to get it right.  It needs grace, but it is not you.

You are hiding.  You’ve found a safe place, or so it seems, behind the fig leaves of reputation and affluence, doctrinal certainty and activistic moralism, energetic pietism and self-sabotaging addiction.

And God is looking for you.  He’ll never stop.

Where are you?  He can’t wait to hear you say, “Right here.  Help me!  I’m here.  And I need you, more than I’ve ever known.”

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Moving Beyond Polarization into Mission

I’m moving on.

I’ve spent the last decade-plus in the midst of a sad and frustrating polarization.  In other posts, I’ve talked about it as the Emergent-Resurgence polarization.  It’s the newest episode in a long series of polarization-episodes.  We, Christians, are Academy Award winners in the Polarization Genre.  Best debates.  Best books.  Best blogs.  Best condemnations.  Best wars.  Best schisms.  Best denominational debates.

Recently, I realized that I was being emotionally-tugged into its black hole.  That’s what this polarizing debate does, after all.  It sucks you in.

Anne Rice quit organized Christian religion because of it.  It tires many.  It energizes many others.  Having taught in both conservative and liberal seminaries, I’m aware of both ditches.  But I get too emotionally involved.  I find myself triggered by what seems to me  to be crazy-talk.

I’ve been slowly trying to wean myself of this.  I’ll admit it.  I’m drawn in to the craziness.  So are many of you.  I see the tweets and get the emails, but sadly I’m not often wise or courageous enough to maturely move through and beyond them…

I decided to do my degrees in counseling and psychology not just to figure myself out (that’s almost impossible, and even frightening!), but to better understand the complex and dysfunctional world in which I live.  In my best moments, my calling is clear – to help men and women live more spiritually and emotionally healthy lives, which in turn propels them into mission – into the lives of others with great faithfulness. In my worst moments, I’m tired, cynical, sarcastic, embarrassed of myself and other Christians, and ready to throw in the towel.

In recent days, I’ve plowed back in to the personal baggage of my own life, and seen my own dark recesses.  More importantly, I find myself drawn back to the center – God, in me, whispering the truth – “You are my beloved.” This penetrates through the bitterness and cynicism.  It reveals my own crap, helps me to own it (repent), and propels me to move beyond it.  That’s where I am right now.  

I am deeply troubled by what I see in me, but also what I see around me in both fundamentalist/evangelical circles and in liberal/progressive circles.  I’m grieved by the division.  Jesus said in John 17, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

We are not one.

My deeper passion, personally, is to help men and women heal the dividedness in their own souls.  I really do believe that healing this divideness is a very big key to a more profound healing between men and women.  Throughout Lent, I will be praying through this, blogging about it, and working toward a next book I hope to write that I am calling “The Mission of God’s Beloved.”

Only as we realize that we are the Beloved can we possibly move toward others with compassion instead of caricatures.

I’ll only continue to write as I do the hard work of doing business with my own inner dividedness.  Thankfully, I’m in a community and among people who demand more from me.

The Mission of God’s Beloved…

Let’s reflect on this throughout Epiphany and Lent, and into Holy Week.

(Christian) Family Dynamics

We all know Newton’s third law:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Or, at the least, we know it in our relationships.  Family Systems theorists have argued for decades that a principle of polarization exists in families.  When one person acts extremely, another generally reacts to the opposite extreme.  Let’s take the Smiths.  When Mrs. Smith decided to take a day at the spa, Mr. Smith was angry.  As the breadwinner, he works hard for the money.  Frustrated and motivated by not-a-little self-pity, Mr. Smith decided to work longer hours that week.  In turn, Mrs. Smith bought a $150 pair of jeans.  Late that week, a fight broke out between the two.  Mrs. Smith was angry with Mr. Smith’s distance.  Mr. Smith was angry with Mrs. Smith’s selfishness.  An exercise in missing the point.

The two wanted intimacy, closeness, connection.  Their polarized argument may have revealed grains of truth (Mr. Smith does work too much and Mrs. Smith indulges too much), but missed the real point.

Our family dynamics as Christians are similar.  Our fights don’t often reveal our real issues.

Now, our polarizations may include real and important differences (I wouldn’t deny objective differences among, for instance, those who deny Christ’s deity and those who do).  But, healthy families talk about differences.  Sometimes, differences lead to separation.  But separation, itself, marks a commitment to the healthiest relating possible amidst difficult circumstances.

However, unhealthy families explode in the midst of difference, often clouding real issues and failing to talk about what is most important.  Factions polarize.  Smaller issues divide.  Mountains are made out of molehills.  And in our anger, it’s so hard to see the real struggle.  Let’s be honest, we’re all guilty of it.  Polarization began in the Garden.  “She did it!  No, he did it!”

Having taught courses in a conservative, evangelical and confessional seminary and also in a liberal, progressive, and constructive seminary, I see these features in both.  Caricatures dominate.  In the liberal seminary where I taught a course, I recall becoming very defensive when a student challenged the notion of “God’s Kingdom” as a patriarchal and inherently violent term.  Internally polarized, I reacted with some anger.  What did I miss, though?  I missed an opportunity to hear the student’s story.  Later, I checked in with her.  My student (who was a minority, herself) was not, in fact, opposed to the language, but to a religious philosophy that champions the dominant group over the minority group.  I validated that.  And then I explained that the Kingdom of Jesus is an upside down Kingdom, where the weakness of the Suffering Servant paves the way for the redemption of broken, needy, sinful men and women.  She teared up.  “I like that Kingdom,” she said.  A new journey began for her.

Likewise, a conservative student was flustered when he found out that I was egalitarian.  He began arguing with me on the data.  But this time I stayed centered, not giving in to my propensity to argue, caricature, polarize.  I told him my story, a story which includes influential conversations with my former professor, a great Reformed theologian who taught at Gorden Conwell and RTS named Roger Nicole, lauded even among ardent complementarians (clink on the link).  He saw that I studied the Bible, and that my journey was not guided by some “misguided feminist agenda,” as he called it, but by “thoughtful study.”  He relaxed.  And so did I.  Polarization AVOIDED.

What if our family could move in this direction?  What if we asked one another more about our stories than assuming some slippery slope, or some arrogant agenda? Let’s talk.

The God who looks you in the eye

I can’t look you in the eyes.

My client said it to me.  I could hear him crying, but he buried his face in his hands. He was drowning in shame from acting out, yet again.

I’m repulsive.

And then he said something that stunned me.  I know God hates me and can’t look at me.

He was a young seminary student.  He’d been listening to some sermons from supposedly reliable guides.  He’d told me what he had heard before – God can’t look at us in our sin.  When he looks at us (and if we’re a Christian), he sees Jesus.

I asked him to look up at me.  He couldn’t.  I waited, and asked again after a bit.  And finally he raised his head slowly, and looked.  I suspect that in my eyes he saw love and felt safety.  His eyes welled up more.  At least you care, he says.

In some warped take on God’s love and human sin, he’s been told a lie.  I heard it again recently by a popular preacher who barks with force at his congregation – Some of you need to know God hates you.  He doesn’t just hate your sin.  He hates you. I’ll spare you the guilt-and-shame-filled YouTube clip.  And yet, thousands flock to it.

Like moths to a flame, many of us are simply irresistibly attracted to messages that either radically overstate our depravity or radically understate it.  Preachers, if you want to make it, tell people what they want to hear.  Two methods seem to work well.

1.  Many want to hear they’re awful. Preach shame and guilt to them.

2.  Many others want to hear they’re just fine. Don’t require anything of them.

Both are lies.  Both minimize the extraordinary and challenging love of God in Jesus.

What I told this young seminary student is to get to know the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who looks the most repulsive in the eye and smiles.  He loves and welcomes them, and then calls them to more.  The extravagant Father in Luke 15 runs toward his prodigal son, bringing shame upon himself, in order to convey his extraordinary grace and love.  You are my son. He gives him the ring, the robe, the feast.  And then he expects him to live like a son.

Original goodness preceded the Fall.  Before humankind fell, God smiled on them, bestowing dignity in his royal image.  Listening to some of these preachers, you’d think God forgot what he created.  But what Jesus sees in messed up human beings is what exists prior, that original dignity and glory.  This originally good self is hidden now, but God promises to reveal it, to reveal you.  As Frederick Buechner says, “The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.” But because of Jesus, we’re washed, cleaned, restored.

God doesn’t hate you.  He’s not repulsed by you.

When he looks at you, he’s not wincing.

And, He’s not looking at Jesus, instead, as if in some twisted form of divine logic God can never look upon his children again, but instead must gaze upon his Son as our righteousness.

No.  You’re not disgusting.  Don’t believe the twisted, repulsion theology that has more in common with Pharisaism than Jesus.  God declares you not guilty.  He adopts you.  He loves you.  Because of his relentless covenant faithfulness, you are loved, welcomed, enjoyed.

But don’t believe the opposite lie either…that God is just some positive-thinker in the sky.  Don’t trivialize God’s love.  Don’t use his forgiveness as an excuse to discard living a life of extraordinary love for others, compassion, sexual fidelity, humility, and more.  God’s love is both welcoming and challenging. God smiles on you and invites you in, but he’ll not leave you unchanged.  By his grace, you’ll be challenged radically, not by a Divine Guilt-and-Shame Manipulator, but by the Incarnate God who humiliated himself for you.

It’s because he knows you.  He knows that original shimmering self that is you prior to the tragic cosmic Fall.  The doctrine of original goodness desperately needs to be restored, not to let us off the hook, but to let us in to a life lived free from shame, freed for a cruciform life of self-sacrificial love.

As you celebrate the Incarnation in Christ’s birth, witness Christ’s smile.  He didn’t come to remind you how bad you are, but how much you’re worth.