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.

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.

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.

on self-compassion, inner critics, and becoming the beloved | 3

I heard an interview with a struggling baseball player the other day.  The radio personality interviewing him said, “It must be tough right now.”  The player said, “It’s always tough.  We work in a profession where succeeding 3 out of every 10 times is success.  We’ve got to learn to deal with frequent failure.”

The player was cut from his team a week later.

Former Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent once said, “Baseball teaches us… how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often — those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”

It’s the strange paradox of Christianity that we, at times, take ourselves so terribly seriously while believing ourselves to be so terribly sinful.  To be sure, we ought strive like athletes reaching toward the goal, as St. Paul often says.  Yet, we’ll often stumble and fall.  John Calvin, who took life and theology very seriously, reminds us this is so, saying that each of us strive to “the measure of his puny capacity,” not despairing at “the slightness of our success.”

Why are we Christians so obsessed with our successes?  It’s as if it’s all up to us, despite the fact that our theology tells us it isn’t so. Again, there’s no shame in trying.  However, sometimes we’ve got to get over ourselves before our trying and striving become redemptive and helpful.  Sometimes, our striving gets in the way of our own ‘salvation’, as the poet Mary Oliver writes.  We hear the many needy voices around us, and feel the world’s redemption is dependent on us.  “Mend our lives,” the voices around us cry.  The world shouts to us with its needs.  But sometimes we’re not healthy enough to help.  Sometimes, our helping is more a reflection of our deep distraction from God rather than our deep consecration in Him.

And, if we’re fortunate, we awake to this reality when we’re younger rather than older, when the damage we’ve done is less than it could have been, and when we realize that our successes are not so much a product of our expertise as much as God’s providence in using our “puny capacities,” as Calvin said, for something we couldn’t imagine.  And then, a poet like Mary Oliver bowls us over with her extraordinary truth, a truth gleaned from her observation of the theater of God’s glory and his people’s stumblings, as she writes

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

And, we realize that we’re the ones drowning.  Enamored with our supposed successes, we’ve been the one in a slump, swinging and missing over and again in the game that really counts.  Perhaps, we’ve been selling posters and signing autographs.  But, we’ve used this as a distraction, too afraid to look at our own-the-field failures.

In this game, though, God doesn’t cut players.  It’s the only game in town where this is so.  You’ve been listening to other voices which are not your own, and he knows it.  And so he invites you to listen to the voice that you recognize as your own, the voice that will keep you company as you strive deeper and deeper into the world.  There is not retreat for the stumbling Christian.  Only redemption.  And so, he says walk on.  Play on.

And perhaps, in time, you’ll recognize that the “voice you recognize as your own” is, indeed, his voice, which speaks when you are most authentically you, his beloved child.

On Self-Compassion, Inner Critics, and Becoming the Beloved – Part 2

I love this poem by Fleur Adcock.  Take your time and read it.  I’ll share some thoughts after it…

Weathering

My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.

What strikes me about this is that Adcock has found a place beyond the “metropolitan vanity” of looking young forever.  She has discovered a place that “doesn’t care how I look and if I am happy.”  We aren’t told much about this place, but it seems as if it is without expectation, forgiving, accepting.  And perhaps the most vivid image is one that strikes us at the core of our narcissism:

where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors.

Adcock has encountered a beauty which has so captured her that her own vanity is pointless.  Once obsessed, she is now “indifferent.”  And she is happy.

happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

Vain, obsessed, and narcissistic, a part of us longs for her freedom.  We are curious about this place she’s found where her waist can thicken.  It must be a place without advertising billboards and rampant pornography.  She can grow grey, a feature of distinction in men but not so in women.  Ask any actress over 40.

In our vain world, the Inner Critic shouts its harsh message. It comes in different packages:

Fat. Ugly. Unsightly.

Old.  Irrelevant.  Yesterday.

Unwanted.  Worthless.  Stupid.

Failure.  Useless.  Expendable.

Which is your loudest critic?

This place Adcock has found comes in many names and with many different descriptions.  But it is the safest place one can find.  I find it in the embrace of the father in Luke 15, the moment where the prodigal son is welcomed into the open arms of a father whose love is unbridled, unleashed, undignified.  To his own embarrassment, the father risks social ostracism to embrace and welcome his outcast son.  The son is safe – loved, welcomed, celebrated, empowered, covered.  If only this display of reckless love was characteristic of today’s churches.  Perhaps, fewer would experience the power of the Critic.

To live in this internal and external world dominated by the Critic, we need to find this safe place.  Adcock found it.  I struggle each day to live in it myself, as the day is often marked by loud voices that demand, expect, require, demean, and devalue – and most are within. Many who I see for therapy report the same battle.  Life has conspired to create many challenges to our wholeness, to our self-compassion, to our enjoyment of being the beloved.

What is this place for you?  How do you experience moments of self-compassion, of happiness, of being the beloved?  How do experience this extraordinary space in which Adcock can declare:

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

On Christian Hypocrisy 1 :: Who are We?

Dear Skeptic,

Thomas Merton once wrote, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything in the universe is ordered.”

If you are truly a skeptic, you likely repel at the thought of a concept like sin.  But maybe you’ll entertain the concept of hypocrisy.  You know it.  You’ve seen it, time and again.  And you’ve noticed its peculiar redundancy among us – Christians.  I’d like to say, in fact, that you’re very right in noticing it.

Hypocrisy.  Its roots run deep.  It was a word applied to Greek actors – people who played a part.  HypocritePretenderActorThe false self.

You might be encouraged that Christians call this sin.  But it doesn’t keep us from engaging in it.

I heard it said recently of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, both who’ve spent many hours on stage.  But I’ve also heard it said of John Edwards, who called himself a Christian before his own stage-act was exposed.  False selves can be found in Democrats and Republicans, in theological conservatives and theological liberals, in pastors and in plumbers.  Truth is, we’re all so good at playing the part.

So, I ask, “Who are we?”  Who are you?  Can I trust what I hear and see from you? And can you trust what you hear and see from me?  What we can agree on, at the outset, is this:  I agree that Christians are hypocrites.  But hear me out.  I’m quite sure we all are.

I don’t know a person without a story, and I don’t know a story without some conflict, confusion, struggle, fear, or shame.  How we cope defines our stories, their trajectories, their plots, their highs and lows.  I know a Christian who coped with his tragic sexual abuse by becoming a six-figure success.  On paper.  In reality, his life was a mess.  Just ask his three children who no longer know him.

Oh yes, we’re guilty of hypocrisy.  In fact, I’m going to argue that we, Christians, don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Sure, we say we believe in sin, even in a concept called total depravity. We believe in a false self, “the self that exists only in my egocentric desires.”  But we’re utter failures at seeing our own false selves.  Ideas are easier to see than human realities.  We’re fearful, scared of looking within.

Who am I?  Who are you?  We have much in common.  I look forward to exploring all of it with you.

Yours in this journey of human curiosity,

Chuck