When Our Heroes Fail Us

Years ago, I heard Henri Nouwen on an old recording tell the story of his path from teaching in the Ivy League to living in a community of people with disabilities in Toronto. He tells the story of a female associate of Jean Vanier who surprised him with a visit on a busy day for Nouwen while at Harvard. “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier,” she proclaimed, standing at the door of Nouwen’s residence as he anxiously asked her pardon while scurrying away to some obligation. When he returned later, the pleasant aroma of a freshly prepared meal served on his own china greeted him.

Nouwen didn’t even recognize the china. His busy life was interrupted that day by a simple greeting. He asked again why she was there, and again she said, “I bring you greetings from Jean Vanier.” Vanier’s greeting was, indeed, an invitation to a new vocation for Nouwen, who did not immediately jump to it. As the story goes, a depleted Nouwen would later make his way to Trolly, France for a needed respite only to conclude the God, in fact, was calling him away from his busy and lonely life into community.

That compelling story of Vanier’s non-manipulative compassion for and invitation to Nouwen drew me to consume all-things Jean Vanier. That was in the late 90’s. Many of us considered him a living saint, and when he passed CT published a wonderful interview with biographer Michael Higgins where he noted that “…he was a man who suffused joy—joy emanated from him, joy to find him. He loved being with people. And he didn’t love being people because he was particularly sociable, he loved being with people because they helped him to realize his own humanity. They help to heal his wounds. They helped him to accept his vulnerability.” Stunningly, he went on to say, “I’ve never written a biography of someone who is so utterly without ego than Jean Vanier.”

A hero falls

I woke up on February 22, 2020 to a text from a student who’d taken a class with me on Vanier and the ministry of presence. She was distraught, dismayed. I clicked the link she sent with the title “Findings of L’Arche International’s Inquiry into Jean Vanier.” My heart sunk. The credible investigation found that Vanier engaged in six “manipulative sexual relationships” under “coercive conditions” from 1970 until 2005. Vanier, who taught so many of us about community, belonging, intimacy, compassion, touch, and vulnerability violated all of it by abusing frightened and fragile women.

Six women. Excerpts of statements they made are sickening, stomach-turning. As a therapist, I’ve counseled dozens of sexually abused women. Vanier’s twisted form of spiritual and sexual abuse can’t be rationalized away as a one-time slip up, a consensual liason. He used his status, his persona, his influence, and his charisma to lure, to justify, to silence. He used and twisted the Scriptures in some cases. A man who taught about the importance of healthy touch for the most vulnerable among us compelled vulnerable women, without intellectual disabilities, into non-consensual touch. This is no small story of an unfortunate encounter. This is a long-term pattern of spiritual and sexual manipulation, coercion, and abuse.

I’m rarely shocked anymore. I’ve been studying narcissistic abuse within churches for years, caring for those who’ve been hurt by pastors they trusted, denominations they took vows in. But when I heard this news, I was shocked. It took a full 24 hours for tears to come. And with tears, sadness, anger, even rage. I paced my kitchen saying, “Why, why, why, why, why?” I do not know the six women, but I know well the confusion abuse victims feel.

Was it me?

   I felt like I had to.

      But I didn’t say no.

          Part of it felt good.

                Did I ask for it?

                      I felt seen, chosen.

                              I feel disgusting, used.

                                        I want to be sick.

                                                 I want to die.

I remember the woman I worked with who after three years still struggled to trust me, a male therapist. She wondered if I’d violate her, perhaps when she finally let her guard down. It reminds me that this kind of betrayal of trust cuts to the core, inflicting wounds that aren’t easily healed. These six courageous women bear wounds in unseen places – soul scars – a trauma not easily healed.

Beautiful and Broken

Each of us is complicated story of beauty and brokenness. We’re image-bearers brimming with dignity and self-deceived, shame-laden saboteurs of trust. The “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, once proclaimed during a sermon, “Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade. Stand out in thy true colors.” Who among us doesn’t hide?

At the same time, aren’t we all looking for heroes of the faith? We venerate great saints, we follow charismatic pastors, we adulate popular authors we’ve never met but whose writings hold something of our fragile stories of suffering or doubt or shame. Do we not long for examples to aspire to, exemplars of a better way?

Just recently, I taught a course on Vanier and the ministry of presence. In a lecture a remember saying something to the effect, “I know we’re all sinners in need of grace, but Vanier may be the exception.” I was joking, of course, but was I really? When I was a young pastor, I had a little wall with pictures of my heroes – Buechner and Peterson and Nouwen and Merton and, well, Vanier. Scrolling through social media, I read cynical takes about how Vanier’s fall is proof that, once again, no one can be trusted. I see one friend chastise another grieving friend for making an idol of Vanier. Someone parodies the Hebrews 11 “heroes of the faith” passage by filling in the names of fallen leaders of the church over the last few years. I think back to my course and with no small amount of shame I recall how glowingly I spoke of Vanier and wonder if I set up my students for heartbreak.

We are beautiful and broken people in a beautiful and broken world. I long for the “all things new” during times like this more than others. I turn 50 this year, but sometimes I also long for the wide-eyed idealism of my 20’s. I remember lauding Reformation hero Martin Luther as a seminary student before finding out about his anti-semetic writings. I was inspired by the Anabaptist theologian JH Yoder’s vision of a peaceable kingdom before I learned that he did violence to the souls of women. What do we do with slave-owning theologians and institutions as well as unfaithful icons of racial justice? And how do we hold the revelation of a good friend’s double life, a pastor’s suicide, a mentor’s disappearance from our lives?

Living in the already-and-not-yet is painful. Creation groans, and we along with it.

Pain and Resolve

After the revelation of Vanier’s double life, a friend texted me saying, “We’re all just a mess.” Yes, we are. We’re all beloved dust, jars of clay. I believe this. But, it’s important not to dismiss the particularly devastating impact of a person who abuses his power. Indeed, we’re all sinners in need of grace. But not all of us are trusted megachurch pastors or movement leaders, bishops or bestselling authors. When an influential pastor or leader uses his position of power to lure women into sexual relationships, this is a profound violation of personal trust, ecclesial vows, and a sacred call. We rightly call it abuse, even an abuse of power.

I’m reminded of the words of Ezekiel:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)

I never thought I’d quote this passage in a piece about a beloved mentor-from-afar like Jean Vanier, but times like this require a deadly seriousness. Writing to a community who thought of their founder as a saint, Tina Bovermann of L’Arche USA noted that the work of discovering the truth about Vanier came with a “with a mix of pain and resolve,” pain for both the victims and for those who’d likely be crushed by the revelations, and resolve “because truth matters…because the real value of every person matters.”

When leaders betray us, particularly powerful and influential ones, we spend a lot of time jockeying about in conversations about the leader’s fall and far less holding in prayer and compassion those who are survivors of his abuse. Even more, organizations and churches sometimes default to self-protection, offering confusing rationalizations or hushing victims with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). In the last year, we’ve seen significant examples of influential churches and networks fumble opportunities for a full reckoning, transparency, and compassion. And yet, Saturday’s revelation about Jean Vanier, while heart-breaking, came with the gift of hope. L’Arche confronted these allegations directly, commissioning a thorough investigation even at the expense of the legacy of its founder and the disruption they’d endure. They chose transparency over obfuscation.

Perhaps, a new legacy emerges from this, a legacy of “pain and resolve” which challenges churches and Christian organizations to, once-and-for-all, dismantle toxic cultures of celebrity and create cultures of safety, humility, and cruciform love. Perhaps our grief can propel hopeful action, manifesting in cultures and systems that are accountable, honest, and healthy.

In a lovely piece written just after Vanier passed, Bethany Fox wrote of L’Arche, “Being a community that honors the embodied and emotional aspects of being human is part of what makes this a place to live that—while imperfect—becomes a ‘school of love’ even in its difficulty.” Though Vanier has fallen in the eyes of most, the “school of love” L’Arche models lives on. L’Arche was never about him, after all. It was always about its core members and a unique ‘school’ where mutual respect, self-giving love, and holy reverence for the image of God in each of us is displayed.

And, it’s an invitation to all of us to become students in this school, imperfect as it is, but aspiring toward a better humanity. L’Arche shows us, in their pain and resolve, just how we love amidst difficulty – with honesty, integrity, transparency, for the sake of the most vulnerable. That is a hopeful takeaway in a moment that feels heavy with grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narcissism is not a “leadership style”

I had a sick, here-we-go-again feeling while reading Kate Shellnutt’s Feb 7 piece on the removal of Steve Timmis as leader of Acts 29. But what stopped me in my tracks was this paragraph late in the piece:

According to a copy of a 2015 letter sent to Acts 29 president Chandler and obtained by CT, five staff members based in the Dallas area described their new leader as “bullying,” “lacking humility,” “developing a culture of fear,” and “overly controlling beyond the bounds of Acts 29,” with examples spanning 19 pages.

Having been down this road before with Mark Driscoll and others, you might expect that the piece would continue, “After considering the report of the staff members, Chandler placed Timmis on leave pending an investigation of Timmis and his church culture.” We might expect some measure of sobriety given some painful history.

Instead, Kate writes:

During a meeting with Chandler and two board members to discuss the letter, all five were fired and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their severance packages. They were shocked.

And then, what follows is a line I’ve heard countless times in church planting assessments and in organizational consultations and staff reviews:

Chandler told CT that, at the time, he saw it as a clash in leadership styles, not as indicators of abuse.

Let me be crystal clear: bullying, controlling, and scaring are not characteristics of any “leadership style” I find worthy of “Christian” leadership. These descriptors do not remotely approach the character of a Jesus-following leader. These pastors described an abusive pastor and abusive culture. And because of this, Chandler will rightly be called to account for what transpired. 

I want to emphasize what is so often overlooked:

Five Acts 29 staff members lives were unalterably changed because of this decision.

These are the pastors I often talk to on the other side of this predictable and abusive process of being silenced. Some have spouses and children. They all bear trauma in their bodies and brains. Sleeplessness. Paranoia. Shame. Rage. Indecision. Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal thoughts. 

Some cope by jumping back in too soon, and others by too-much-drink.

A good many face financial hardship.

Some never pastor again. 

Most lose relationships forged during their time serving the church.

All suffer profoundly. 

For me, this is what hurts the most. I’ve sat with pastors like these in their quiet rage and cathartic tears and I can’t emphasize enough how lost and forgotten they feel. 

So five years later, what does Acts 29 owe the pastors/families impacted by an abusive leader over the course of many, many years? What does it owe the wider network and the many pastors who serve with integrity and humility? 

A first important step is to welcome in an outside investigator like GRACE. Many churches/networks conduct in-house investigations that perpetuate the same patterns of self-protection. That can’t happen here. Sadly, Acts 29 must face the reality that this history repeats itself too often, and must commit to ending this pattern of abuse. What if this network became known not just for its planting but for its commitment to thoroughgoing and systemic healing, reconciliation, and ongoing health? 

To facilitate an effective investigation, all pastors fired should be released from their NDA’s immediately and invited to tell their stories. I can’t emphasize this enough – the culture of church NDA’s is vast and toxic, reaching beyond Acts 29 but often found in church planting contexts. We need to start talking about this phenomenon – why it exists and how it shows up in particular ecclesial contexts and who is harmed. 

With this, and for the sake of transparency, the leaders of Acts 29 must welcome new information, however disruptive, unsettling, or embarrassing. In this process, Acts 29 needs to be ready to re-engage those hurt and harmed by abusive leadership, not merely with polite apologies but with reparation, if necessary. This should include commitments to support therapy and recovery. Each pastor’s story needs to be considered. This is painful and uncomfortable and timely, and so very necessary. 

I emphasize this because while much of the attention in situations like these is focused on the leaders responsible, often with great fanfare and social media drama, the traumatized survivors of the abusive leader are often forgotten. We ignore how being fired impacts one’s mental health, livelihood, reputation, and more. These are men and women with names, image-bearers whose dignity was attacked.  

Finally, I have friends who’ve planted and pastor Acts 29 churches. I’ve counseled Acts 29 pastors and led trainings. My friend Rich Plass has given years of effort to fostering emotional and spiritual health in this network. Some who’ve reached out to me are sick and confused and genuinely wondering if they can remain. I’m relentlessly hopeful, but serious deconstruction needs to happen before folks will trust again. 

If you’re a leader in Acts 29, I appeal to you not to settle for a polite apology. For churches to heal from this epidemic of narcissism, all must walk toward the light once and for all, to tell stories, to speak truthfully, to listen patiently, to repent fully, to deconstruct fully. Don’t let phrases like “but God is doing so many good things” silence an honest appraisal of the dark shadow side of your network. I know no other path to transformation than through the dark night. 

I’m hurting for you and praying for you. I don’t know the pastors who were fired, but tonight I’m particularly concerned for you. How are you caring for yourselves? How is trauma impacting your life, health and relationships? Who are you talking to? What do you need?

I’m an outsider, but I’ve got a big heart for good friends across this network who are in pain and confused right now. So, do the hard work. Move toward those who’ve been hurt. Don’t settle for bandaids…subject yourself to major surgery, the cruciform way. 

Follow the way of Jesus through a painful wilderness into a better future.

Grace and peace,

Chuck

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I am a longtime pastor, therapist, and professor of pastoral care and christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary (MI). My latest book is born out of many years of experience – When Narcissism Comes to Church releases March 17. 

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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.

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.

 

*all of my stories are an amalgamation of several stories, with details changed.

 

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.

 

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.

it’s the end of the world as we know it, and i feel fine

It’s only hours before Jesus comes back, according to Harold Camping.  It’s prime time for tweeting crazy stuff about the rapture, and waiting anxiously for that first 6:00 deadline in Tonga.  In fact, I was hoping Fuller Seminary would fly Professor Daniel Kirk to Tonga to report from Rapture Ground Zero.  It’s all a lot of fun right now, in fact, particularly for those of us who don’t believe that this is how it’ll all go down in the end.  And, to be honest, we’re all a little embarrassed that, once again, Christians look like freaks living for another world rather than loving and renewing the world God created and called good.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic, though.  You see, Harold Camping is “Uncle Harold” to me.  That’s what my Dad called him, anyway.  30 years ago, I was being tucked into bed to the sounds of Family Radio.  Uncle Harold didn’t sound half as crazy back then.  For a young kid intrigued by the Bible, it was hearing a guru with all the answers.  And then there were the Bible readings they offered, and the stories from Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, and the haunting hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past.”  It spoke of the “shelter from the stormy blast,” something that resonated with a fearful and sensitive little kid.

Family Radio put me to sleep every night.  Until I woke up to the craziness of Camping’s brand of Gnosticism around 13 or 14 years old, and switched the radio to REM.

As a therapist, my thoughts right now are with families that have been split over this, husbands who have left wives in feverish devotion to getting the word out, little kids who trusted their parents and will be heartbroken when May 21st comes and goes, for those who are gay and who’ve been further traumatized by Camping’s toxic talk about ‘Gay Pride and the End Times’, devoted followers of Camping who will wake up on May 22 confused and despairing, and others who will find some rationalization for Camping’s latest apocalyptic flop.  The media will have a field day with this.  But behind the cynicism will be despairing people, some who even wonder if they were ‘chosen.’

And so, it’s with some nostalgia and quite a bit of heartache that I watch all of this unfold, nevertheless thankful for the security I felt in God’s arms as I fell asleep each night, thanks to Family Radio, to Isaac Watts great hymn

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

That message, I can say with confidence, is enduring.


Love at the Core :: Loving our Enemies

Of the many quotes and Bible verses being tosses around the Internet and Twitter since the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, one has risen to the top.  It is actually an incorrect quote of Martin Luther King, Jr., but close enough to the real thing to warrant attention (thx to @Merobinaa for this.)  The real quote is just as powerful, and might be dismissed as activist jargon if they were not hauntingly reminiscent of Christ’s words.  MLK, Jr. writes

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” (from Strength to Love)

On September 11, 2001, I tried in vain to call my sister Kathy, who still lives where we grew up on Long Island.  An executive at Motorola, she would often drive into the city to visit her Manhattan colleagues.  When I finally reached her, I was comforted that she was safe, but experienced her tears for friends and colleagues who were lost in the attacks.  We reminisced about our times in the city as kids, and I fought back tears every time I considered going back, which our family did only last year.  It was a very emotional experience visiting Ground Zero.

It’s tough to imbibe the ethics of Jesus.  It’s tough, particularly, in a political climate where words like “good” and “evil” can be tossed around loosely to describe whole nations and even regions of the world.  Bible verses are called upon to justify whatever emotions we’re feeling.  Our very basic and raw desire for revenge is satisfied in the death of one man.  Facebook updates and ‘tweets’ talk of justice and jubilation.  And it’s very, very difficult not to feel even a bit relieved, or perhaps even thankful, that a man who could plot something as evil as the World Trade Center attacks can no longer perpetuate evil.

And then we’re faced with Jesus.  Jesus frustrated the ‘Zealots‘ of his day.  Even Peter experienced this frustration.  A reformed Zealot (or so we thought!), Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant in a seeming act of noble Messiah-security.  But Jesus quickly restored his enemy’s ear, rebuking Peter instead.  This was not merely a Messiah who waxed eloquent about loving one’s enemies.  When his life was on the line, he actually did it.

These things, of course, cannot be easily transformed into political policy, nor are they meant to be.  But the actions of Jesus do get you thinking.  For centuries after Jesus, Christians would succumb to the sword instead of taking up the sword against Rome.  Why?  It makes little sense.  But then again, Paul would remind us that the Gospel is “foolishness.”

And then the inevitable questions come today:

Should I tell a woman who has been emotionally abused in her marriage to love her abuser?

Should I counsel a victim of sexual assault to forgive, or even to turn the other cheek?

These issues require more space, and I’ve written on this before.  However, in this context, they’re worth revisiting, particularly among those who seek to follow Jesus, to become like him, to experience a life of self-sacrificial love.

As I’ve written this short blog series called Love at the Core, I’m struck more than ever by the centrality of love.  And with that brings the difficulty of love.  And it’s times like these that I’m quite happy not to be a politician, translating this difficult ethic into political action.  Sometimes, it’s easier pontificating as a pastor in the blogosphere.  What I do know, today and everyday, whether faced with OBL’s death or with the abusive spouse of a client, is that I’m compelled to wrestle with this ethic of love and forgiveness that Jesus presents.

That, I suspect, will take a lifetime to figure out.  I certainly haven’t figured it out yet.

Love at the Core:: An Illustration

She lost her mother before she was even able to grieve.  You don’t need Attachment Theorists to convince you how extraordinarily significant this loss must have been.  She was just two…barely able to understand.  And this, some might say, is an advantage.  At two, you don’t know any better.  But, everything we know today says something very different.  At two, Mom is your world.  And if Mom goes, so goes your world.

But human beings are resilient.  I’ve seen severely abused young women become successful traders and managers and entrepreneurs.  That does not necessarily mean that they are successful. Human beings have evolved into expert compartmentalizers.  Some of the most successful young men and women I know stuffed away large parts of themselves very early on, even unwittingly, in order to become the so-called successes they are today.

And so, my client became a success, despite her mother’s death at an early age.  Her Dad’s coping strategy was to extinguish every memory of Mom.  No grieving.  No memorializing.  Soon, a Stepmother entered the picture.  And there were no conversations, photos, or side chats about Mom.  She was gone.  Quite literally.

Many years later, my client comes to me for therapy.  Her presenting problem – depression.  I find that she is a compulsive exerciser.  Her only release is in the gym.  In fact, it is there where she feels.  In fact, in the gym, she and her body become one.  Many years before, I suspect, she disconnected from her body.  She shut down her feelings.  She buried her pain.  But now, exercise brings her life.

When I say to her that exercise is the very place where she feels, she begins to cry.  I continue saying that I think that exercise is where her body feels held, where she connects to something she desperately longs for…the feeling of being held, loved.  She weeps…uncontrollably.  She knows.

Exercise may be her idol.  And sure…she may need to repent.  But what’s really going on?  She is desperate for love.  Mom’s hold daughters.  But she wasn’t held.  And her body is saying what her mind and heart long to say – that she wants to be held, loved, enjoyed, cared for.  Exercise is her entryway into belonging.  Exercise is where she comes alive.

“No one has ever seen that,” she tells me.  She feels known.  She finds a picture of her deceased mother, and places it on her dresser.

She will likely always enjoy running and exercise.  But today she’s begun a bigger journey.  She will grieve.  And pray more deeply than she’s ever prayed.  And she’ll speak to a picture, sitting atop her dresser, of a mother long gone.

And God will hear.  A God who gets to the heart of the matter – Love.

(Note: Whenever I refer to someone I saw for counseling, I am using a mosaic of clients who I have seen, not an actual client.  I cannot violate the confidential relationship counseling demands.)

a heart divided against itself cannot stand – part 1

Appear to be what thou art, tear off thy masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade. (Charles Spurgeon)

If we’re truly engaged in a modern-day new exodus out of the many enslavements that burden us, through the refining and clarifying fire of suffering, and into the glorious Promised Land of freedom, then there’s much to be excited about.  If St. Paul is right, new creation has already begun.  Eden’s distant echo becomes a real, tangible expression in and through redeemed humans who, quite literally, become walking-and-talking embodiments of a new humanity, participants in the divine life in there here-and-now Kingdom.  This is no pie-in-the-sky religion.  We’re not waiting for Kirk Cameron’s silent rapture, though our balding friends might hope that our new bodies feature Cameron’s full head of curly hair.  No, we’re engaged in the kingdom-come (on earth as it is in heaven) with all of its glorious possibilities.  

But despite the presence of the future, a new exodus reality is that creation still groans, yearning for restoration.  No less, you and I groan.  The voice of lament, we’d think, ought to be a thing of the past, of Old Covenant realities.  And yet, even the saints in heaven cry out in a lamenting groan (Rev. 6) yearning for God’s once-and-for-all restoration.  It seems that all is not yet well.

The ravages of sin are still at play, within all of creation, and within the human heart.  Thus, I begin a series of reflections on the “divided” heart.  It’s a notion found in Scripture, of course, to illustrate the awful pull we feel inside every day.  Part of me wants Promised Land life, yet another craves the predictability of Egyptian enslavement.  My addictions become friends, and when I leave them, I miss their company.  They’ve taken up residence in me.  They are more than a behavior.  They change my brain chemistry, inhabit my physiological responses, and haunt my memory.  As one writer says, “You can take the Israelites out of Egypt, but it takes a long time to get Egypt out of Israel.”  When my heart is divided against itself, I’m like a man who is ill.  Spurgeon wrote:  

It is a disease of a vital region—of the heart; a disease in a part so vital that it affects the whole man. The utmost extremity of the frame suffers when once the heart becomes affected, and especially so affected as to be divided. There is no power, no passion, there is no motive, no principle, which does not become vitiated, when once the heart is diseased. 

broken glassAs we take up this idea, I’m going to talk as much as a psychologist as a theologian.  There’s plenty written on sin, but far less on the psychology of the divided heart.  If the Gospel has something to do with bringing shalom into broken places, then the divisions within the heart are no less important than the divisions God wants reconciled among Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, Hutus and Tutsis, Arabs and Israelis, or abusers and victims.  Further, I want to go so far as to suggest a therapeutic (or soul-care) approach to restoration that takes the division within seriously, and moves beyond behavior-modification or sin-management into a kind of internal reconciliation process that (like all other reconciliation processes) takes time.  For some strange reason, we still seems to think that sanctification is instantaneous, and we quickly become frustrated with our own continued brokenness and the brokenness of others.  But, if the image within was really shattered in the Fall, then the work before us is time consuming, difficult, and even painful.

That said, I’m neither interested in pop-therapeutic approaches that over-simplify and trivialize real growth, nor therapeutic suspicion which seems to demonize any attempt at self-care (something which, incidentally, goes radically against Christian tradition and Scripture), and which makes its own over-simplistic statements like “Christianity is not about self, it’s about God.” Both extremes will find fault with my approach.  If so, just stop reading now.

If you’re excited to delve into what I think might be a very stimulating journey through both Scripture and what I sense is a very new and cutting-edge approach to soul care in modern psychology (something called “Internal Family Systems Therapy”), read on.  We’ve got a lot to talk about.