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.

 

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

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

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

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

Failure.

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

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

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

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

What if I didn’t fail?

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

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

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

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