In Search of a Spacious Place

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Ps. 18:19

Image result for stars at nightAren’t we all longing for a spacious place? Aren’t we all longing for a place to run free, to breathe deeply, to spin round and round with our arms wide open? Don’t we all desire relationships where we’re known and loved unconditionally and wholeheartedly?

When I was a teenager on Long Island, I used to drive to the marina in West Sayville late at night in order to catch the vast expanse of the starry heavens. When I felt constricted and closed in, that dock became my thin place, and my soul would expand.

This longing for a spacious place was the instinct years ago behind my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. Egypt is called Mitzrayim, a narrow place, the kind of place that will suffocate you if you stay there too long. You know those narrow places – the abusive relationship, your couch (after binging cable news for 5 hours), the inner mental state of constant suspicion or comparison. There are many mitzrayim’s in our lives. For some of us, constriction is a daily, burdensome reality. I longed to paint a picture of that winding journey to freedom.

Years ago I got 5 minutes with NT Wright. No, I won’t call him my close personal friend “Tommy.” But intuiting my interest in psychology, he turned me on to the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Through masterful research, McGilchrist demonstrates the unique influences of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Even more, he shows how each has the capacity to create reality, impacting how we live and process daily life. What is most striking is his argument that the world we live in today operates primarily according to the left hemisphere. While the right hemisphere prefers mystery, covets connection, sees wholistically, and thrives in the “spacious places,” the left slices and dices, polarizes, and judges with sharp right/wrong, either/or thinking. The left knows only in part, but speaks with certainty. The right sees the whole, and stands in awe. I think Wright was hinting at the right hemisphere as a key to a Kingdom imagination.

The sad reality is that while both hemispheres are necessary for their healthiest contributions, you and I probably live most of life according to the left hemisphere. And that’s exhausting. It’s like living life in a perpetual Game of Thrones or House of Cards episode. We are constantly measuring, comparing, sizing up, scheming, and climbing. Think about left brain influence in our politics, our theologizing, our tweeting, our leadership, our church strategizing.

But we can’t shake the longing for something more. In early August, our family swam DAY_water-37and snorkeled with dolphins and sea turtles in the wild. As I peered below, more than 40 dolphins swam freely, rhythmically, and playfully, sometimes pairing off to dazzle us with an improvised dance. It was another universe below the waterline. I felt like I’d entered a dreamscape.

Every so often I evaluate what generates left hemispheric activity and what generates right hemispheric activity in my life. I can feel it in my body. I evaluate my work and relationships, social media engagements and projects through the lens of what cultivates spaciousness. You can do this too. But you’ve got to tune in to a deeper intuition, a bodily intuition which whispers more than shouts. You’ve got to pay close attention to the gradual revelation of capaciousness in your being. This counsel from Rilke to his young apprentice in 1903 may help:

…just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.

I long for a spacious place, these days. I’m beginning to believe that if it’s not expansive, it’s not worth it.

While left hemisphere influence is crucial for everyday living, McGilchrist has convinced me that a fundamentally different inner orientation is necessary for real transformation. The kind of generative imagination needed amidst our current polarization won’t arise from our slicing, dicing, and scheming side. But because we’re literally swimming in the waters of left-brained addiction, real intentionality is required for a new way of living, a more spacious way of living.

I’ve led and now I train leaders, and my sense is that while I can equip them with knowledge and tools, there is a spacious consciousness, a curious silence, a non-anxious patience that I need to nurture within them. They need to plunge beneath the waters for a while to gaze at the dolphins or venture out late at night to peer at the starry sky so that awe and humility take root. They need to go on the wilderness journey where dark nights cloud the sight of their gods of certainty, purity, ego, and power, revealing one who is True.

Rumi once said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” My sense is that is the spacious place where Jesus is Lord, where the broken are blessed, the mourners comforted, the hungry and thirsty satisfied. If McGilchrist is right, God has truly set eternity in our hearts. And perhaps, freed from constriction and opened to capacious connection, we can live as ambassadors who’ve tasted and seen a new and spacious land, and who long for others to taste it too.

 

 

 

a reminder to take care of you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Rediscovering Nouwen | On Power and Intimacy

I’m continuing to reflect on Henri Nouwen’s 1972 book The Wounded Healer. Now 46 years later, it’s as important as ever to wrestle with Nouwen’s invitation, particularly when it seems that our political and ecclesial leaders operate more from a posture of power rather than intimacy, particularly as we see our own propensity to live from places of self-protection and power rather than vulnerability.

I’ve read a bunch of biographies of Nouwen over the years and I’m struck by how transparent he was about his woundedness, his neediness. His deeply subjective and experiential spirituality irked clerical authorities as well as colleagues at Yale and Harvard, even as his Catholicism remained quite conservative and as he resisted controversial subjects. His fragility rattled new friends who expected him to be the solid, stable sage. His neediness impacted close friendships, some of which were ruptured. And yet, his autobiographical and self-disclosing style was far from narcissistic. His writings are so popular, even today, because he names our secrets, he reveals our fragility, he exposes our brokenness. We see our stories in his.

It’s striking to me that Nouwen was tenured at Yale although he never finished his PhD! We strategize to rise through the ranks. We edit resumes to highlight our successes. We compile degrees and credentials and titles and achievements. When we do attain power, we’re careful to protect it. With power, it becomes even more important to hide our secret compulsions, our simmering anxiety, our burdening needs for approval and affection and belonging. Nouwen was invited into spaces not because he had the degrees but because he put words to our deep longings.

In another book, Nouwen muses on Christian leadership, writing:

The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.  Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.[i]

Nouwen believed that the temptation to power, to success, and to relevance was greatest in those most out of touch with their own humanness – their needs for intimacy and connection, their fragility and fears. He believed that those most out-of-touch with their own stories would be most likely to project their psychic trauma onto others.

Image result for henri nouwen

Henri Nouwen

As we examine ourselves, it’s important ask: Why do we pursue power? What deeper needs are we attempting to meet through its attainment? Why do we crave position? Achievement? Success? Is there a deeper ache we’re neglecting to notice?  Indeed, testimonies of life-crises among those who’ve attained it only to discover an inner emptiness and lack of satisfaction ought to remind us that there is so much more available, if only we’d allow ourselves to be seen and known. The masquerade is exhausting. Show your true face, and be free.

[i] Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1989), 60.

Becoming a Wounded Healer

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that one can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” Henri Nouwen

I’ve been re-visiting an old friend recently – Henri Nouwen – who is easily in my Top 5 most formative modern spiritual writers. The lanky Dutchman was a complicated man, a priest whose congregation was everyone, a psychologist whose greatest riddle was himself, a giver who could hardly get out of his own way, an outsider whose popular writings were ridiculed by his academic colleagues, and a prophet whose theo-autobiographical style connected with the masses.

I’ve seen myself in Nouwen, at times. He could be both compelling and awkward, dynamic and insecure, manic and depressed, spirit-filled and empty. His paradoxical life isn’t one we necessarily aspire to – after all, who wants to wrestle with the deep anguish of self-rejection, as one biographer calls his “primal wound”? It’s his honesty we aspire to. It’s a canon of writings that might be rightly called The Confessions of Henri Nouwen. 

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because fragility is weakness. I’ve long resented my own fragility.

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because loneliness is a sign of relational awkwardness. How often have I been lonely and not reached out?

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because trained priest-psychologists are supposed to have it all together. Place a check there, too.

It’s a life of a wounded healer, as Nouwen called it, a life in which our loneliness and fragility, awkwardness and anxiety, shame and insecurity, are not always hidden. To be sure, we’ll try to mask it. But those who know us best see right through us. And, paradoxically, when we risk being seen, we find that our presence is a gift. Others feel like a space is created for their own fear and awkwardness. Others find freedom in our spacious presence.

I’m drawn to Nouwen because he brought his wounds into the light to be healed. Somehow, he lived something I often only proclaim but fear living – that to be known intimately by another, to risk vulnerability, is to encounter the possibility of healing. I continue to crave the respect of academic colleagues, so I play the part as well as I can. I continue to crave the affirmation of ministry peers, so I play the part as well as I can. Nouwen seems so wounded that, in one sense, he couldn’t really get out of his own way. And yet, his great ‘genius’ is his radical, intentional engagement with the text of his own life. He was a master exegete of his own story.

He is a ‘wounded healer’ precisely because he brings his wounds into the light. Image result for the wounded healerOften, those who are wounded remain unhealed. Many become ‘victimizing victims’, not wounded healers. We hide, we numb, we settle, we avoid. The gift of Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer is its prophetic call to do the hard work of healing, to engage our own stories, to acknowledge our repressed needs, to name our deepest longings. This is a huge risk, especially for pastors. Congregations want the Put-Together-Pastor, not the wounded healer.

And yet, I’m more and more convinced that if we refuse to do the work, if we refuse to engage the pain of our own stories, we become wounded wounders. The plague of the narcissism, as I’ve written about, emerges when we’re disconnected from ourselves, from our longings. It’s ironic, because a condition which appears most self-centered is actually a condition of radical self-disconnection manifesting in a person utterly out of touch with his own needs, his own longings, his own story.

What if pastors were wounded healers whose stories were the fertile soil for connection with lonely, addicted, insecure congregations?

What if we lived so freely that confessions of our fear and loneliness were welcomed, even easy to offer?

My plan in the coming weeks is to reflect further on what it means to be a wounded healer on the heels of the year 2020, two decades (if you can believe it) into the new millennium. Nouwen’s 1979 book was a gift, but it was written 40 years ago. What might Nouwen have to say to us today? Let’s explore this together in coming posts…

 

BETRAYED BY THOSE WHO WE THOUGHT ‘GOT IT’ – NARCISSISM AMONG THE “ENLIGHTENED”

Years ago during the Vietnam protests, researchers studied the level of consciousness and self-awareness of those engaged in protests. The assumption was that the protestors engaged this work out of a larger consciousness, a true love for justice, a global worldview, a sense of compassion. What they found was that the large majority were still highly egocentric, “pre-conventional” as some call it, and invested in the cause from a place of self-interest. In other words, their efforts were narcissistic.

Ken Wilber’s investigation into this phenomenon in Boomeritis and later in A Theory of Everything demonstrates how central egocentricity is in narcissistic people and movements, even those that appear more just, compassionate, even “right”! Wilber’s turn-of-the-millennium critique (which equally ticks off progressives and fundamentalists) targets the shadow side of their supposed enlightenment, and it was remarkably prophetic. As he argues today, the election of 2016 was, in part, an evolutionary corrective to the egocentricity of the enlightened. Hillary’s “deplorable” comment is the best example of it. He points to an inclusionary movement which contradicted itself in its often harsh, polarized practices. While we thought we were progressing toward justice and inclusion, in truth we hadn’t yet worked out our collective developmental shit (my translation). We have more growing up to do, individually and collectively.

While Wilber’s cultural reflections are helpful for our larger political conversation, I receive his insights as valuable for the church. I sometimes hear – “He preached so beautifully. His vision of the Gospel was so rich. I felt God’s love through his presence. How could he betray me?” Or I may hear, “He’s such a courageous warrior for justice. His story is so compelling. And yet he is so manipulative. Why?” What is important here is that Wilber frames this conversation developmentally. Again, if we haven’t worked out our developmental growth (our shit, as I translated it earlier), we’re prone to engage in higher level, important conversations from a lower level of consciousness and self-awareness. And that’s when the damage is done.

Consider a church planter whose vision, personality and story were compelling. I knew him as someone who seemed moderately self-aware. And yet, a year into his plant, his egocentricity began to show in technicolor. As the Seventh Day Adventist church they rented swelled to overflowing in time, so did his ego. You wouldn’t see it on Sunday mornings or during a visit over coffee. But it came out in cruel emotional abuse of his wife, condescension toward his mostly-volunteer staff, and inordinate spending of their limited budget. Confronted with these things, a healthy pastor would lean toward curiosity and humility. But he reacted in rage. For so many in the congregation who would be told the church plant was being shut down by the governing body above it, there was confusion. Some said that they’d never heard the love of Jesus preached more clearly, more powerfully.

Consider the young social justice warrior who appeared to be the only one speaking for a marginalized group. Seemingly brave in social media spaces and in his local contexts, he argued in ways that made you think, “If I’m not with him, I must be a terrible human being.” His pleas for justice appealed to God’s compassion and mercy, and he knew his Bible well. And yet, those closest to him, even trusted allies, began to wonder about his integrity. He’d lie, engage in manipulative self-pity, and make up stories of pain to raise money for the cause. When he was found out, he’d go ‘scorched earth’ on his previous community, leave town, and start again. Those he left behind, especially the marginalized group he befriended, wondered how he could so quickly abandon them.

Sometimes people mistake narcissism as an inordinate focus on the self. In fact, narcissism is seen in people who lack any self-awareness. The (false) self they inflict on the world is not a self they know or are aware of. In our early, pre-conventional developmental states, we simply act, without awareness, and often from a guttural urge or when blended with some tribal consciousness. In other words, we speak and act unaware. As the myth of Narcissus shows us, Narcissus was not connected with his (true) self, but an image beyond himself, ever-illusive, uncontrollable, and ultimately enslaving.

In 25 years of ministry (with two stints as a “Pastor of Spiritual Formation” in Reformed contexts), what I see so often in pastors is a profound lack of healthy self-awareness, what many throughout the centuries have called “knowledge of self.” Calvin’s doctrine of double-knowledge may not have been sophisticated psychologically, but it bears the honest self-reflection of his theological mentor, St. Augustine, whose Confessions represent to us an early example of pastoral wisdom. As my counseling professor in seminary might say, “Learn to tell your story well…and honestly.” Honest self-examination allowed 19th century London preacher Charles Spurgeon to confess to his congregants that he couldn’t preach as often as he’d like because of his depression. Honest self-examination led pastor Richard Baxter (author of The Reformed Pastor) to write a tome called The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance. Or the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel to write in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

Enlightenment, as it turns out, isn’t about getting it. Perhaps, in the end it’s about not getting it. I see many pastors who can turn a phrase, cast a vision, or please a crowd. I’m looking for women and men who are humble, who follow in the way of a suffering servant. Today, we need disciples of Jesus, women and men who go on a journey of self-knowledge which, paradoxically, is a journey of self-denial, because who would not want to cast off their egocentric self to become truly human?

A quick story to end this piece…

When I was in Orlando, a student who most didn’t think had promise made his way from Orlando to Montana (I’m changing some details here, of course), to take a small, frustrating congregation. It was the only job he could get. He packed his family of five into their beat-up Ford Windstar and headed Northwest, hopeful to find some extra income to supplement the pittance he was offered. By day, he pastored. By night, he packaged eggs in a factory. He buried, he married, he baptized. And five years later, when several legends of the seminary were dealing with charges of adultery or pornography or theft, he was still pastoring. And ten years later, when his peers had left ministry to sell insurance, when the star of his class had to resign in disgrace, he was still preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and packaging eggs.

He’s still there. Loving and leading, baptizing and burying, laughing and crying with his beautiful and broken people.

Eugene Peterson calls this a long obedience in the same direction. He stumbled in Greek class. He couldn’t keep up when we’d engage fast-paced, heated theological debates. And, he’s not at all concerned about social media, which kind of ticks me off…because to make my point, I’d like to link you to his church. But, that would be self-serving, of course – a monument to egocentricity, the ministerial idol of our age, the developmental roadblock which both confuses and terrorizes. I swim in these dangerous waters too. Lord, have mercy.

Noverim me. Noverim te. 

Those are the words of Augustine.

Let me know myself. Let me know you.

Let it be.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

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

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s systemic narcissism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

no kingdom without a cross

There is no rescue without suffering, no transformation without a wilderness, no kingdom without a cross.

This difficult message, more often than not, is rejected by Christians, not by skeptics.  Skeptics, in fact, are strangely attracted to the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus draped in the American flag or the Jesus whose message apparently sells self-help, victorious-Christian-life books.  No, skeptics are suspicious of this Jesus, and rightly so.  Rather, it is us – Christians – who are more apt to embrace a kingdom without a cross.

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that since Jesus ventured into the wilderness and suffered, even to the point of death, that we don’t have to.  Many of us live with a sense of entitlement – religious entitlement (if I live by faith, my life should be successful), economic entitlement (want to offend someone? – tell them their taxes are being raised!), political entitlement (supposing the world is going to hell in a handbasket if supposed ‘Christian’ policies on the left or right are not embraced), social entitlement (our desperately codependent need to be connected all the time), and psychological entitlement (my parents shouldn’t have failed me).

I saw so much of this on display over the past week during the healthcare debate, which seemed to draw out every angry, embittered, idealistic emotion our culture corporately carries.  On the one side, evangelical friends were outraged that they’d be forced to be inconvenienced (taxed!) for the sake of others, or at least this was my take.  On the other, those on left seemed, once again, convinced that real community and care could be somehow mandated by law.  I struggled to see the Gospel in any of it, in the sense that I didn’t see an honest wrestling with what it looks like, as a society, to come together wisely to care for the least of these – bringing in the kingdom through the cross of personal suffering and inconvenience for the sake of the other.  Let me assure you – sprinkling a little Jesus on Ayn Rand or Karl Marx does not make for a cruciform kingdom…

…which leads me to wonder – will we, Christians, need to suffer more to see that becoming followers of Jesus requires crucifixion?  Our confidence in changing and transforming the world politically – whether you’re on the left or the right – is false security.  It is an idol that will break in a thousand pieces.  And I say this no matter the method.  I tell my clients – those who think psychology will make it all better – that good psychology only leads you more deeply into the wilderness in order to meet God.  The idol of optimistic self-help will also explode.  Moreover, the confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing Market may be our biggest idol.  Thomas Hobbes warned John Locke that the humanistic belief in well-intentioned, altruistic people was nonsense, and would come back to bite us.  His prophecy was too true.  What the market has produced is wealth for some, to be sure…and many cultural goods.  But it has also produced a thriving porn industry which degrades young women, the idolization of image, obsession with people’s tragic lives on reality television, the false belief in the 2000s that middle-class families could actually afford 2000 sq foot homes, psychological dependence on each new technology, the collective narcissistic false self of the American, a growing psychological sense that we deserve more and more, the militarization and economization of ‘security’, the church as “small business” in competition with others, the professionalization of the clergy, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the collective narcissistic image of success.

I believe in the paschal mystery – the path of life through death patterned in Jesus – and this leads me to wonder, at times, if we might not need to face a cultural death in order to experience real life and revival.  We, Christians, may be most in need of this humiliation, and perhaps ought to pray for it.  We seem to excel in hard times.  I was reminded by a white South African friend again recently how black Christians in Africa led the call to forgiveness and reconciliation for those who systematically abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even raped them.  May we suffer so as to learn forgiveness like this.

As an election season heats up, we’d do well to extricate ourselves from the back-and-forth which is so enticing and addictive, as if a Supreme Court opinion or an election can save us from our desperately entitled, narcissistic selves.  This is my own spiritual discipline in this season – God help me.  I will be asking myself – what is the way of the Cross?  What false securities have I embraced?  But watch out what you pray for.  That which we hold to, cling to, attach our identity to may be taken from us – our business, our secure portfolio, our reputation, our idealism.

And may God’s peaceable kingdom emerge amidst the rubble in a way that skeptics might see Jesus in us, instead of despite us…

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.

The Four Security Strategies of Contemporary Evangelicalism

I’m thinking out loud right now about the kinds of security strategies we employ which actually represent ‘twisted’ ways of participating in the life of Christ in our world today.  I’ve taught about this a bit in my Psychology in Relation to Theology seminary courses and wrote about it a bit in Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. But I’d love your feedback and thoughts.

There were at least four established Jewish movements in Jesus’ day, according to most scholars – The Pharisees, The Essenes, The Sadducees, and the Zealots.  Of course, like most movements today, each was complex.  But generalizations can be made about the particular way in which each represented a security strategy for the Jews of that day.  These are psychological strategies. Often, our theological strategies are masked in psychological ones, and I’m proposing that this was the case then as it is today.  The Jewish people in the two centuries before Christ, after all, restlessly coped with multiple anxieties – the loss of a central place (Temple, land), an anxiety around Messiah’s return (manifesting in an array of apocalyptic and militaristic scenarios), conflict around accommodation to Empire (withdrawal vs. participation), and more.  Perhaps, their theological positions were not merely developed in a vacuum.  Maybe, they were attempting to cope with a very real disappointment with God and anxiety about their future?  Let’s take a look:

The Pharisees – a complex group (with multiple camps within it) who were the Torah-zealots of their day, rigidly guarding the boundaries of Jewish orthodoxy.  Their security strategy was a hyper-vigilant protectionism which provoked the ire of Jesus, who did not come to abolish Torah but to see it come to life.

The Essenes – A group of ancient ascetics who had given up on a Temple-centered Judaism, who lived by a strict code, and who imagined wildly apocalyptic scenarios for the coming of Messiah.  Their security strategy was withdrawal and avoidance, a self-protective strategy to keep them from mingling with the sellouts, their Jewish brothers and sisters who mixed and mingled with Empire.

The Sadducees – In contrast to the Essenes, the Sadducees were accommodators, who rolled with the upper echelon of society.  Though we don’t know a whole lot more than that, it appears that their security strategy was political in nature.  Hanging with the influencers kept them from having to feel the incredible powerlessness many Jews of the day felt.

The Zealots – Anxious for the kingdom to come, Zealots would take up arms to speed its day.  These warriors of God adopted a militaristic security strategy which bred a sense of power and control amidst extraordinary anxiety about the Jewish future.  Even despite the radically cruciform way of Christ, Christians would take up arms for their cause for generations after.

Now, do these four movements correspond, in any way, to our contemporary evangelical security strategies?  Do we see ourselves in them?  Do we define Jesus through them?

Here are some initial thoughts with some initial descriptors.  I welcome push back, as I’m developing some of these thoughts for further use down the road.

Modern-day Pharisees – Policemen for Jesus.  Guardians of tradition.  Hyper-vigilantly aware whenever someone appears to cross the line.  Black and white.  Noble in their passion for truth, but dangerously close to forfeiting intimacy with God in their fervor for rightness about God.  A security that comes from certainty of doctrine rather than confidence in Jesus.

Modern-day Essenes – Monks for Jesus.  Guardians of purity.  Prone to see everything in this world as a distraction from real relationship with God.  So noble in their heavenly-mindedness, yet prone to be of little earthly good.  A security that comes from self-protection rather than bold and cruciform engagement in the life of Jesus.

Modern-day Sadducees – Salesman for Jesus.  Players in the game of faith.  Willing to accommodate in any way to advance the cause.  Passionate in their desire to be “all things” but in danger of selling a hollow faith.  A security that comes from being important, relevant, striving to become a power-player for Team Jesus instead of enjoying the freedom to have influence (…rather than need influence).

Modern-day Zealots – Warrior for Jesus.  Ready to fight alongside General Jesus in the battle for truth and goodness over heresy and sinfulness.  Aggressive in every endeavor.  Passionate for a faith-in-action, but prone to run people (and especially women) over.  A security in a dominant and forceful presence (in preaching/media/web/relationships/etc.) instead of resting in the cruciform, self-sacrificial, powerless way of Jesus.

Send me your thoughts.  And, if you’re being honest, you’ll likely see yourself in one or more of these, as I do.  The bigger question is how we go about doing the hard work of self-evaluation, as well as evaluating our churches, our denominations, our movements, and institutions.

How do I cope in one of these ways?  How do I lead from this kind of posture?  What anxieties/disappointments are really operating behind the scenes?  What values have I adopted (and defended, as if from God) as a result, perhaps, of my own unconscious needs?  What movement have I aligned with because it scratches this psychological itch?