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.

Why Penn State and Syracuse Matter…

At the Leadership for the Church in Mission conference the week before last, Prof. NT Wright ranted against the media obsession with the Penn State scandal.  I get it.  For Wright, the American news media is quick to jump on a sensational story, missing the more subtle stories of injustice in the states and around the world.  But I’m convinced this story is a moment of hope and opportunity for those who’ve been silenced by high profile, high-functioning abusers.

Having heard dozens of abuse stories over the 13+ years I’ve been a clinician and a pastor, there are few harder to stomach than these.  Somehow, we expect awful stories to emerge from those who live with so little already.  It’s when abuse breaks through in a middle/upper-middle/upper-class context that we shudder.  Not us.  Not here.  Not him.  Not her.

The facts about child sexual abuse are debated, but even the most conservative estimates place abuse of young girls well over 50% of the population, and young men well over 30%.  When Dr. Dan Allender came to speak at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando in the mid-90’s, he shocked our conservative Christian campus with alarming stats.  2/3 of your female congregation have experienced sexual abuse.  More than half of the men have. “No way,” a buddy of mine whispered.  “A bunch of therapist BS.”  Yet, I suspect many of my seminary peers are not doubters today.  Spend enough time listening to people’s stories and you can’t deny it.  Sinister, stomach-turning child sexual abuse is far more pervasive than we think.

And that’s why the Penn State and Syracuse stories matter.  I’ve listened to and read sports commentary on this for weeks now.  So much of the intrigue is around how this could happen.  Someone said to me the other day, “It’s hard for me to believe there are Jekyll-and-Hyde types of people out there.”  Even among people we trust.  Even among our sports heroes.  Even in your church.  And perhaps even among your leadership.

But why does it matter?  It’s not a stretch, at this point, to believe that many who knew the alleged abusers at Penn St and Syracuse failed to sound the alarm.  Many, I’ve found, simply don’t get the damage of sexual abuse.  “Abuse?” one church elder once said to me.  “Isn’t that a strong word?”

“Yes, I replied.  It’s a very strong word.  It speaks to the depth of violation.  And, as a Christian, I can’t help but do everything I can to emphasize it.”  Why?  Because “abuse” assumes a vandalism of shalom, of God’s glorious intention for human dignity.  Abuse speaks to a violation, a violation of the dignity of a human image-bearer.  Abuse strips the victim of God-given beauty and innocence.  It introduces a pre-pubescent child to an adult world not only before her time, but from the perspective of an extremely dysfunctional framework.  It’s perhaps the most confusing, identity-shattering act that can happen to a child.

Over the years, I have counseled many adults who were abused as children.  Most have been very high-functioning.  You see, abuse sets many adults into a pattern of inner control and self-protection which allows them to compartmentalize and manage pain.  Many do this so well that they become extraordinary doers, successful in their field because they can absorb the blows.  But, many don’t even remember they’ve been abused until well into their adult life.  Memories can be triggered in a variety of ways, but when they come they can flood the victim with a rush of recalled scents, sounds, and sights which rattle them to the core.  Others do remember after the original abuse occurs, but vow to stay silent, to protect themselves, to protect the abuser, and to protect family members (…and teammates, coaches, etc.) from a reality which can radically disrupt a community.  Regardless, an abuse victim lives in a tightly-controlled inner world which protects him from the wildly frantic outer contingencies which cannot be controlled.  Who can blame him?

And this is why Penn State and Syracuse matter.  Wherever dignity is destroyed, wherever innocence is robbed, wherever shalom is violated and vandalized, Christians must be at the front lines, protecting and defending the innocent.  The level of outrage we, as Christians, feel must be proportionate to the outrage some Christians express over abortion, others over the poor, and still others over theological imprecision.

Penn State and Syracuse remind us that grown men who are respected and idolized can have secret lives, preying on the innocence of young children.  It can remind us that our need to protect others, though overwhelming at times, should never trump the ‘truth that sets us free.’

And, it should awaken us to an epidemic.  Imagine a disease that affected 50% of the population.  Let’s imagine this disease manifested in scarring and boils all over the skin.  Let’s imagine it drove its victim into shame, self-sabotage, and isolation.  Now, imagine this as a very real epidemic among the sexually abused. And consider the implications.

Men, consider the women you objectify.  Though beautiful and enticing as you view them on a web page, they have likely experienced soul-killing objectification from their earliest years.  Most, statistics would validate, have experienced sexual abuse of some kind.  Their reality assumes that they are meat for male consumption, and not image-bearers made for innocence, beauty, and dignity.

Women, consider the little boys men have become, especially as portrayed in television and media.  Consider the emotional deprivation boys experience because their fathers have no idea how to orient them to mature male adulthood.  Consider the obscenely sexualized world a young boy grows up in, and how few men are willing to step in to say, “Enough.”

There is something noble when the typically sexualized male sports commentator becomes sick to his stomach because older men are abusing younger men.  Now, let’s take the challenge to go further, and see this as an epidemic that impacts young men and women.  And let’s become adults, mature adults who are willing to call abuse abuse, who are willing to sound the alarm when any vandalism and violation of shalom occurs.  This may require us to tackle our own issues, our own blindspots, our own tendencies to sexualize, minimize, compartmentalize, or manage our own pain.  But real courage, Christ-like courage, invites us into the pain and difficulty, breeding honest, vulnerability, and truth, for the sake of God’s great love for his image-bearers.

That’s why Penn State and Syracuse matter today, far more than they’ve ever mattered, even amidst championships and victories.

To all the women who feel crazy with a narcissist…

Dear “Crazy”:

Yes, I know you’ve heard that word over and over again.  Remember the night you just couldn’t take it any more?  He wouldn’t listen, but he sat there sitting with that look…you know the look…as if to say, “You know how nuts you sound right now?”  And then calmly, rationally, methodically, he laid out your issues one by one.  And you slapped him…

Yep, now you’re crazy.

Crazy is the feeling you feel with a narcissist.  If it’s not a feeling on that popular “Feelings Chart” marriage counselors hand out, it should be.  It’s that moment you think and feel, “Maybe I am really out-of-my-mind…he seems so certain and I’m feeling so confused…maybe I am a bad Mom, maybe I am a bad wife, maybe I should just ‘get help’ like he says and realize what a good guy he is.”

Narcissists feign emotion with the best of them, but lack real empathy.  They can appear calm and clear, cooperative and seemingly open, charming…even sensitive.  A young therapist can be easily drawn in to his convincing orbit.  Many times I’ve sat with a younger supervisee who says, “He seems really great, but she seems like a basketcase.”

I’ve been down this road many times with many narcissists.  Crazy thing is, I’ve grown to really care for them.  I’ve come to enjoy working with narcissistic men because I know what they don’t yet know…that deep down, they’re vulnerable little boys who need to be loved.  But that doesn’t mean you need to feel this.  In fact, you may need space.  You may need to get out.  You may need to protect yourself.  And you certainly need to take care of yourself…or, in my perspective, allow yourself to be loved by One who won’t subject you to this emotional and psychological abuse, One whose heart breaks for you in a way that his doesn’t.

But hear this – though you feel crazy, you are not crazy.  You may be broken.  Confused.  Fragmented.  Trapped.  Stuck.  But at your core, you’re loved more deeply than you know, and valued more profoundly than you feel.  Your dignity and sanity, at some level, has been stolen, but your work now is to begin listening to a more gracious Voice.  And you need to feel all the permission in the world to get to a place where you feel safe, where you can begin to recover, where the sanity can end and real healing can begin.

Finally, a word about your responsibility.  I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve done stupid things, said stupid things.  Yes you have.  I don’t buy into this whole, “He’s the abuser, you’re the victim” thing, in large part, because we’re all more deeply broken and confused than we know.  Yes, you’ve blown it too.  But what sets you apart is your willingness to own your own stuff and to heal.  You are a victim.  And you are responsible. Yet, unlike him, you have empathy.  You feel.  You are capable of repenting.  You can be rightly grieved for how you’ve hurt others.  And so, you’re well on your way to healing.  And part of that healing with involve discovering your own story, why you are susceptible to the crazy-making ways of the narcissist, and how you might self-sabotage, too.  It’ll be a hard journey, but a good one.  And you’ll feel much more clear and whole in the end.

After reading this, I hope you feel a little less crazy.  But do me a favor.  Find community – preferably your church, a safe pastor and therapist, people who will look you in the eyes and tell you the truth about yourself.  And late at night, when the voices of confusion enter again, listen for the whisper of One who says, “I love you.  You’re not crazy.  You’re my beautiful daughter.  It’s time to leave Egypt, and fix your eyes on the promised land.  Your slavery is over.”

Pastors Care Too Much

I was talking to a fellow professional in the world of psychology today, a seminary professor and a pastor, a man who has evaluated literally hundreds of candidates for ministry.  We were comparing notes.  We’ve both administered tests (like the MMPI and MCMI) that evaluate for pathology.  And it took about 3 minutes to discover that we’ve both seen Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) emerge more than any other as the most common disorder among pastors.  But why?

The symptoms of HPD include:

  • Being easily influenced by other people
  • Being overly concerned with looks
  • Being overly dramatic and emotional
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism or disapproval
  • Believing that relationships are more intimate than they actually are
  • Blaming failure or disappointment on others
  • Constantly seeking reassurance or approval
  • Having a low tolerance for frustration or delayed gratification
  • Needing to be the center of attention
  • Quickly changing emotions, which may seem shallow to others

    Now, pastors with HPD are ordinarily very high functioning, as are most who struggle with this.  But, they (we!) often find ourselves over-functioning, intervening when we ought to set a boundary, becoming overly worked up about certain things others might shrug off, reacting quickly and sensitively, becoming defensive, and (as a result of all of this emotional exertion!), becoming easily tired.

    No wonder so much of the pastoral literature in the past two decades is about pastoral burnout.

    But, vacations and naps won’t fix the problem.  Rather, we need to see that we’ve become people who care too much.  We’re over-compensators, often thrust in to situations in our childhood where we were called upon to “be adult,” to negotiate, to help make the peace, or to intervene on behalf of someone being made fun of.  I’ve heard these stories time and again.  It’s no surprise that we become ministers.

    But our “caring too much” extends to our theological hyper-vigilance.  I was reminded of this recently as I’ve been re-reading some of the great old epistles of 1st and early 2nd century saints like Polycarp and Ignatius.  Over and again, they fought for unity, and tackled only the major heresies of their day.  They didn’t quibble over relatively small issues.  In their missionally animated world, they didn’t have the bandwidth.  There was no extra energy to litigate every apparent slippery slope.

    How do you care too much?  How do I care too much?  It’s a strange idea, and even sounds a bit heretical itself.  Aren’t pastors paid to care?

    And where did this begin for you?  For me?  Do we know our own stories well enough to see where these histrionic patterns started?  And who knows you well enough to call you out on your over-caring patterns?

    Share with me your thoughts.

    On Self-Deception

    Demosthenes once said, “Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.”

    Listening to James K.A. Smith speak to our Newbigin Fellows this past weekend, I was reminded of the importance of liturgical worship, and one of its core elements – Confession.  It’s why we need church each and every week.  It’s why we blow off worship to our own peril.  Confession invites us to do the most difficult of things – to see our self-deceit.

    Paul Tripp says, “The DNA of sin is self-deception.”  And the liturgical Confession of Sin is like truth serum.  It jolts us into seeing ourselves as we really are.

    Oh yes, I really did try to pull the wool over his eyes.

    Crap, I really did manipulate those numbers.

    God, forgive me for continually pointing the finger at everyone else.

    Confession requires courage.  Yes, we fear that looking at ourselves reveals a kind of weakness, that we’ll see our real vulnerabilities.  But vulnerability is the doorway to freedom.  See yourself clearly, and you’re likely to gain more than you’ll lose – relationships, integrity, respect.

    Sometimes we find ourselves becoming more like Jesus not because we’re good, or because we’ve succeeded, or because we’re doing the right thing, but because we’ve seen the log in our own eye instead of the speck in another’s.  We may feel powerful reciting the narrative we believe about some other screwed up person, but confessing our own deceit invites us into a holy powerlessness, a place where we need Jesus more than we know.

    And that’s where we find the greatest freedom.