“Just Become Yourself”: A Bad Line from a Disney Movie or the Wisest Counsel of All?

Become yourself.

It might sound like a bad line from a Disney movie. Or a trite piece of advice from a self-help guru.

I was working with a client in the first years I practiced as a therapist. After six weeks of work, she spontaneously uttered, “I think I’m done with counseling. I’ve found myself!” To which I uttered kiddingly, “Wow, I’m really good at this.”

Her revelation was real and deeply felt. In week 5 of counseling, she’d left a manipulative abuser. We celebrated her courage! In her first five days of freedom, she cut her hair (he insisted she keep it long), she burned a photo album, and she bought two new outfits she’d wanted for months. She came in to our session beaming, convinced of her lasting freedom and blessed autonomy.

While I celebrated her very real experience of life and vitality, I (perhaps for the first time) used a story I’d later draw upon in my first book. I said, “I imagine you feel a lit bit like the Israelites felt on that first day out of slavery, released from their oppressors and overwhelmed by the promise of freedom. But, I suspect for you, just like them, the wilderness lies ahead. And that’s where we’ll do the real work together. That’s where the real freedom is found.”

I like inviting men and women to become themselves, and I’ve retitled my blog in this season because I want to reclaim this invitation, allowing it to be enriched by a larger story, a better promise, a rich spirituality of becoming. Becoming oneself is not like flipping a psychological light-switch within. It’s not about finding your autonomy. It’s not about becoming an individual, but a person, not about finding independence, but a surrendered dependence. Aleksandr Kutakh walking 1

Listen to Thomas Merton’s depiction of this journey:

“Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive uncontrollable dynamic of fabrication designed to protect mere fictitious identities – ‘selves,’ that is to say, regarded as objects. … Such is the ignorance which is taken to be the axiomatic foundation of all knowledge in the human collectivity: in order to experience yourself as real, you have to suppress the awareness of your contingency, your unreality, your state of radical need. This you do by creating awareness of yourself as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fill.” (from Raids on the Unspeakable) 

My tradition says it this way:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ

I’m convinced that becoming oneself is the work of a lifetime, as each and every one of our clenched fists of control relaxes as we discover that we’re unfathomably held and loved. I’m convinced that becoming oneself happens as we identify and remove every mask we’ve hid behind in our effort to make ourselves, and as we discover the beauty of those fatherly words from Luke 15: Everything I have is yours. 

Isn’t this what we long for – to be held, to be known, to discover infinite worth and delight?

And so…

Our becoming is a part of a larger story.

Our becoming is a lifelong journey.

Our becoming leads us into a relationship of surrendered dependence.

Our becoming requires many little deaths along the way.

Our becoming awakens us to a life not of hiding, but of hiddenness – “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3).

Disney tells a pretty good story. This one is just a whole lot better.

 

(re)union: my journey back

(re)union: my journey back

I am back on the blog. I have been (mostly) silent as a blogger for two years now. It’s taken two years (and will take longer) for a kind of inner renewal that I desperately needed. If you’re willing to listen and read, I’ll tell you why.

I found myself at a threshold of my own life about 3 years ago. I had my hands in many good things. I had a dream job in a dream city with extraordinary friends. I was published. My blogging was well-received. I had my hands in some very creative and entrepreneurial things. But I was so utterly externalized that the rich source of inner life animating my work and relationships felt distant. As we’ve all experienced, I felt a disconnect between what I was saying and what I was living. And that breach of integrity (particularly for an Enneagram 1) was excruciating.

These threshold moments provide opportunities for growth that can pass us by if we fail to recognize them. We may double down, work harder, or anesthetize more.

Or… we can listen to that small still voice, that quiet but relentless urging from within, beckoning us to move beyond the safety and comfort of what is sure and certain. T.S. Eliot knew this voice:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

At the time, it seemed for me that a significant vocational shift might be a conduit for this exploration, and it has proved to be just that. But, we never know for sure when we make these big decisions. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with the “knowing God’s will” jargon, as if we could read the tea leaves of vocation with utter clarity. Perhaps, in the first half of life we might talk about “right” and “wrong” decisions around job choices and vocational shifts. But, as we grow older, we realize how uninteresting it is to live by this externalized and self-judging code. Instead, we listen within, we trust gut-urges beckoning us into unexplored territory, we consult wise wilderness guides, and launch. That’s what I did, on multiple levels.

My own vocational journey is only a small piece of a larger personal journey. We remain externalized if we think geographic orFeatured image vocational shifts will tame our restless spirits. The sojourning spirit is deep within each of us, if we’d listen, but it is not fundamentally about finding ‘the job’ or ‘the voice’ or ‘the degree’ or ‘the position’. The journey, at least as I know it, is a journey to union. It is a journey from fragmentation to wholeness, a journey from exile to home, a journey from attachment to union, a journey from hiding to “being hidden” in Christ, a journey from neurosis to theosis.

That final phrase is the title of the last chapter of my first book, Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places. I am not even sure I knew all that it implied. I intuited it and experienced it a bit, but it was still very much an idea. It remained externalized. It is safe to remain in the control tower of my head.

In the late 1990’s, a class with theologian Alistair McGrath exposed me to the mystics. Back then, 20-something Chuck felt drawn to a deeper journey offered by contemplatives like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Their gracious invitation into union felt so freeing, particularly as I watched my theological camp duking it out over right views of the courtroom language of St. Paul. While my kin seemed obsessed with the courtoom, the mystics were talking about the bedroom. Perhaps, 20-something Chuck was drawn to the more emotional, even eroticized journey of the mystics, the journey of desire, which is far more fundamental to what it means to be human (see Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). In those early days, I dabbled with contemplative prayer, mostly to quell the incessant anxiety in my being born of my need to be the perfect, put-together, well-liked, smart, helpful pastor. But the contemplative journey came to a jolting stall when I hit a vocational detour in the early 2000’s, prompting me to double down and anesthetize the pain once again. I lost touch with that inner journey – and thus, with with One hidden in me – instead trusting my gifts or my personality or my connections to get me through.

Like you, I am a master of self-sabotage. I long for divine union but like my immediate and temporarily-satisfying union-substitutes. Now, by some combination of ego-drivenness, white privilege, and effective networks (translated by Christians as “God’s blessing”) I managed to forge together a decade of service to the church and to pastoral formation. I got to pastor at City Church San Francisco, I got to start another counseling center, and help create Newbigin House. Those will always be to me five of the most full and rich years of my life. But my drivenness took a toll in health and psychological fragmentation, and sometimes I’d find myself up speaking in front of a group of pastors wondering who and where I really was.

This brings me to today. I can use the word today because I can actually be present today. We’re often everywhere other than where we are right here and right now. This is why I think the question Where are you? is so much more significant than Who are you? I know many people who answer the Who are you? with all of the right theological descriptors, but are far from themselves, far from home. We are often disconnected…lost in our busyness, obsessing on our Fantasy Football team, anxiously monitoring the market, or trolling social media…far from home, far from present. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you.

Today, through some dying, I am back. Back in my being, back in my body, back to (at least) a momentary wholeheartedness which allows me to say, with some integrity, that I am actually writing these words.

I call this re-union. With God. With myself. As Merton says, to be born again is to become most deeply oneself.

The last two years, in particular, have required a deep dive into contemplative practice (not just contemplative theologizing). It has come in fits and starts. Sara and I were hit with a big tax bill a year and a half ago which led me to double down yet again, taking every available speaking gig to help pay down the debt, talking “wholeheartedness” while feeling at times like I was coming apart at the seams. Last Fall, I hit a wall and knew it couldn’t continue. But I was a slave to the calendar I didn’t manage. I completed my next book Wholeheartedness in that season, my life a kind of experiment in being present amidst the busyness.

In the Spring, I did a silent retreat with James Finley that kickstarted the most intentional interior journey I’ve ever been on. My primary spiritual director has been St. Teresa of Avila. With astounding accuracy, she describes the perils and delights of this inner sojourn. It is my journey with her which has prompted my desire to blog again. I want to invite you into this journey.

The problem with blogging, as I’ve experienced it, is that it can be so externalized, so reactive, so geared to likes and shares and influence and klout and…the agenda of the false self. The online writers I admire are attuned to this reality, and even share their battles with remarkable humility. I continue with social media knowing its draw on my own narcissism because to stop speaking and sharing (whether as a writer or teacher or blogger or poster) based of a fear of my own narcissism would require me to shut it down altogether and perhaps join a monastic order (which doesn’t sound like a bad idea, sometimes). At the same time, I do think that in this particular time we need to be very wise stewards of our words. Words matter, and they grow in significance when there is silence in-between. The practice of solitude gives soul and depth to our unique voices.

And so, my movement back into blogging will come with great intentionality. What I will be sharing with you is a journey I am taking (along with a class of 20 brave women and men) into Teresa’s Interior Castle. With permission from my students, I may even share some of their musings. The focus is on experiencing union with God. In my tradition, we often talk in broad strokes about the “Gospel” changing us or “repentance” renewing us or “adoption” comforting us. But, I have no small accumulation of qualitative data from dozens of pastors and laypeople that there is much talk of union and little experience of it. Our love affairs with smaller union-substitutes tell the story. We live in a radically addicted culture. It is not enough to believe the Gospel. It is not enough to claim our courtoom verdict. Our desire must grow. Our love must be kindled. “We must fly to our beloved Homeland,” as St. Augustine says. St. Teresa helps give us wings.

And so, I invite you to join me (and my students) on this journey, participating through this blog and perhaps even using the resources my class is using (see below). I also invite you to share this blog with others who may want to tag along. Regardless, thank you for reading.

Resources for the Journey 

Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila translated by Mirabai Starr (I love Starr’s translation of Teresa, John, Lady Julian, etc. She is a fresh new translator of these classic works. Her introduction alone is worth the price of the book.)

Entering the Castle, Caroline Myss (this book is the cheapest investment in your own therapy you’ll ever experience, though the emotional and spiritual investment may be costly!)

Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird (this is best accessible introduction to the purpose and practice of contemplative prayer I know. Laird is an Augustinian priest teaching early Christian studies at Villanova U.)

action and the ego

God made human beings both for being and becoming, for loving and for creating, for contemplation and for action.  Or, as my New Testament professor once taught, we live in the tension between the indicative and the imperative – being and doing.

But unless we first address the being question – the question of identity – we’ll always be prone to become enslaved to the doing, to the achievement, to the tyranny of the gotta-prove-myself ‘ego’.

Those who know me know that I’m prone to do and to to go.  I’m convinced that we’ve been made for mission.  I’ve been influenced by Lesslie Newbigin, and the missional movement that he inadvertently inspired.  I’ve produced.  I’ve burned the candle at both ends for the sake of the Kingdom.  And I will be the first to challenge the young seminarian to sacrifice.  And yet, many pastors – like me – get into their late 30’s and 40’s and realize that there must be something more.  

With some honest self-assessment, we recognize the addiction to action, to achievement, to recognition.  We recognize the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in ministry. Our eyes are opened to the pecking order of influence.  We measure ourselves by converts, or attendees, or twitter followers, or book sales, or brand recognition, or devoted followers.  But I, and many others, also recognize something else.

This, too, doesn’t satisfy.  

Because our ego is incessantly demanding and needy, no measure of influence will satisfy.

What demands your allegiance?  What enslaves you?  What dominates your ego-attention?

There is often a great cost to abandoning your ego-needs.

People will always question your decisions.  I know a pastor who recently left a large congregation to start a new one, with many who questioned why he’d leave his followers, his paycheck, his home, his comfort.  The life of sacrifice, in fact, may not be the life of activistic influence with devoted followers.  In fact, it may be sacrificing your ego for the sake of a new time of simply being, or a new season of re-directed action.  It’s not so much what you do – it’s how you recognize the power of your ‘ego’, and seek to die to its power.

This is what St. Paul meant when he talked about “death to self” and being “united with Christ.”  Sacrifice is not action for action’s sake.  Death to self is death to the ego that enslaves you.  It requires you to leave whatever ‘Egypt’ has gained influence and power in your life, to navigate the long and hard wilderness road of humility, maturity, and renewed purpose.  This is the way of the Cross, which leads to Resurrection power…and never, ever ‘ego’ power.

Why Telling Our Stories Matters | Leaving Egypt Bonus Track

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . ”  Frederick Buechner

Let me offer 7 reasons why it’s important for us to be both story-tellers and story-listeners, 7 “identity-markers” for a Storied people beginning with “We Are…”:

1.  We are Hardwired for Story – Curt Thompson writes, “the process of reflecting on and telling others your story, and the way you experience others hearing it, actually shapes the story and the very neural correlates, or networks, it represents.”  In other words, we thrive when we listen and tell.  Without it, we settle for a life of reactivity, not reflection – stuck in our reptillian brain, disconnected from both of neo-cortical brain and from other human beings.  Simply put, Story is healthy.  

2.  We are Meaning-Makers – For millennia, telling and listening to stories was the fundamental building block of civilization, the way of passing along tradition and family tales and myths.  It was a kind of social glue.  Today, our meaning-making happens in radically different, and often compartmentalized ways – seeing a therapist, connecting with an old friend on Facebook, attending church (often infrequently, and in churches where the Christian story isn’t necessarily told and practiced each week), gathering data piecemeal from Google searches, a quick coffee with a friend.  Busyness has robbed us of time.  Individualism has robbed us of community rituals.  Consumerism has redefined our purpose.  Story can set it straight.

3.  We are Honest – Story-telling requires honesty.  I have told my own story in highly edited ways, often trying to cast myself in the best possible light.  Eventually, the truth will get you.  In the recent political conventions, I heard both sides speak frequently of American exceptionalism, and I could not help but wonder if we’ve taken our own American community-story seriously, with all its good and bad – Selfless heroism and slavery, gracious giving and genocide, beauty and brokenness.  Even America has a story…and the point is that there is no shame in telling the truth.  The shame is in the radical editing for the sake of glossing over the hard times, the failures, the suffering, and the errors.

4.  We are wounded – Telling our stories heals us.  We’ve seen that it heals the brain.  But consider this.  After the Rwandan genocide, there were many therapists who visited Rwanda with new techniques for healing – quick fixes for the damaged and abused human soul.  What did psychologists and theologians eventually find?  No new techniques seemed to help.  But old-fashioned, group story-telling seemed to heal wounds.  As Rwandan men and women sat together and told of their sons and daughters, of rapes and ravaging, healing and forgiveness took place.

5.  We are storied/historical beings, not Gnostics – I give credit to Eugene Peterson for this one, as his writings on Lament reminded me that what is grieved in that ancient biblical book is actual suffering.  You see, we don’t live in a vacuum.  Modern enlightened guru’s speak of living in the eternal now, and I understand the value of living in the present moment.  But Judeo-Christian religion is storied.  We are not Gnostics.  We believe in actual events, real and felt.  This is why I feel the most orthodox Christians ought to be the most Storied of them all – rooted in narrative, God’s and ours – mindful of the need to remember…

6.  We are liturgical – In historic Christian worship, we come together to rehearse the Story.  In Confession and Assurance, in the Sermon and the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Prayer and the Benediction, the whole Story is told – the story of original goodness invaded by sin, the story of dignity and depravity, of hunger and thirst, of blessing and mission.  Worship, at its best, is NOT an Oxytocin high, a praise-song-feel-good-love-fest, but an intentional engagement with God as his loving, desiring, obeying, hoping creatures, longing to be re-Storyed and re-branded in the Great Story told each week…

7.  We are commanded – I can’t help but return to the frequent admonitions to Remember…

It seems that over and again in Scripture, God’s rescued people are told to remember.  The Israelites are commanded to remember the great rescue from Egypt.  The exiles are told to remember God’s faithfulness.  Christians are given the Eucharistic meal as a meal of remembrance.  It seems telling and listening is a kind of corporate remembering for Christians in worship.

And this is why I’m both a therapist and a pastor.  Because, I’m in the business of the telling, the listening, the remembering.  I’m called to invite people out of their hurried lives into an intentionally reflective space, where God can show.

And this is why I think it’s so important that you remember.  Listen, quick-fixes are available all over today, in religious forms, in medicine, in self-help books, in internet and TV gurus.  But the unhurried process of telling and listening invites us into a kind of sacred cadence, a rhythm that can reform our hearts, and even rewire our brains.  Science and faith agree – Story is central.  We tell stories in order to live, as Joan Didion says.

Tell and listen as if your life depended on it.

 

The Inseparability of Contemplation and Mission

In fact, for the past 12 summers or so, I’ve drowned myself in the mystics, sitting at the feet of St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Reformed mystics such as the a’ Brakel’s, or Thomas Merton.  This summer, I’ve been spending time learning from Rainer Maria Rilke, Meister Eckhart, more of Merton, and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr.  Rohr, perhaps more intentionally than any other, has connected for me the inseparable marriage between the contemplative and the active, between mysticism and social justice, between meditation and mission.

This ‘marriage’ is perhaps more important today than in any other day.  It’s no surprise to people who know me that I believe Lesslie Newbigin is the most important missional visionary in the past 100 years.  A prophet of sorts, Newbigin returned from his work as a missionary in India to become a vocal spokesperson for Western culture’s unsettling entanglement with the Gospel.  A strong ecumenical voice, Newbigin could see through the polarizations of his day, and cast a new vision, a kind of ‘third way’ as some call it, which would unite divided Christians.

Yet, the psychologist in me sees a man comfortable with tension and paradox, a man able to see-through and see-beyond, a rare gift.  Indeed, it’s the gift of contemplatives.  Newbigin’s affection for the overall narrative of Scripture, and our mysterious participation in it by and through the Spirit, makes me certain he had mystic sensibilities, even if they were not realized in classic ways.  And the centrality of Christ, and union in Christ for Newbigin, leads me to believe that living in India allowed him to break out of the slavery of modernist rationalism, and to see with new spiritual eyes.

Let me explain how this impacts us.  Until recently, we lived in a Christendom reality…a world in which Christianity was fused, sometimes in indistinguishable ways, with medieval, Renaissance, and modernist worldviews.  We’re emerging from a long marriage to Western modernism, rationalism, and individualism, with values that are as entrenched and unquestioned as the 10 Commandments.  Indeed, the ’emergence’ from this most recent version of Christendom leaves many alarmed, warning of the end of Christian culture, and for some an almost certain sign of the end times.  Instead, I believe we’re living in a time full of possibility, a time much like that which the early church experienced, rich in contemplative and missional ways, inviting us to “follow Christ” more simply, humbly, and vibrantly.

This is because missional engagement requires a kind of contemplative stance – comfort with paradox, radical dependence on a living and active Spirit, a unitive theology and spirituality.  When we’re engaged deeply in mission, we lack time or energy for the typical culture wars, the maddening polarizations, the rationalist nit-picking.  Indeed, because contemplation majors on ‘being’ rather than ‘thinking’ (a modernistic idol), one is called to be deeply rooted in God, known by God, in union and communion.  Real presence with God means real presence to others, and this constitutes mission, as we embody Christ in the world.  (read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, for a real, early church example of this.)

I’m encouraged by the level of interest and excitement around mission that I’ve seen, particularly over the past 15 years or so.  However, mission can become empty activism without contemplative depth.  Or, in another way, it can become a tool for a bully pulpit in the form of a kind of ‘missional rationalism’ without contemplative depth.

Mission requires we sink deeply into God, rooted so firmly that we can live freely and lovingly no matter where we are.  With that in mind, I’ll be sharing more on this in upcoming blogs, particularly as I introduce you to some of my favorite contemplatives…

Chuck

no kingdom without a cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men, Women, and the Way of the Cross

Some pastors have been asking me to blog a bit on my thoughts re: complementarianism, egalitarianism, male/female roles, why it’s become such a polarizing topic, and perhaps even why it’s become a new litmus test of fidelity to the Gospel.  I’m hesitant to address such a big subject.  It’s so polarizing.  And it’s sad to me.  I find myself sinking into a depression when I consider some of nonsense that goes on, and how it divides a church that ought to be a witness in its unity.  But, here are some thoughts.   I’ll be highlighting some themes I think are worth considering.  Below are some of the questions I get, and some of the responses I’ve given through email exchanges, etc.  It’s a longer post, but broken into smaller chunks of Q & A.

Why do you think churches are losing men?  And don’t you believe that men are returning to some churches because they are re-asserting a man’s proper authority in the church?

I’m no church historian and I’ve heard this case made, but I have a very different take.  I think the early church was filled with courageous men who saw in Jesus the way of real manhood, for lack of a better way of saying it, the way of masculine vulnerability.  Now, some men ran for the hills.  This wasn’t the militant Divine Warrior they expected.  It was the need for power and authority that got them in trouble!  Look at Peter – he needed it too much.  So, Jesus defined the terms in John 21 for him – when you’re young, you’ll pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but as you mature you’ll realize your vulnerability and dependence.  Men left the church because they no longer had this grand vision of cruciform risk-taking and suffering servanthood for the sake of witness to the way of Christ in the world to live into.  I assume this began post-Constantine, when they gained power.  Now, this attracted a certain kind of man, but I wouldn’t call this man “Christ-like.”  Power and authority became way too important to the post-Constantinian church leader.  And I think it is way too important for some male pastors today, to the point that it’s really destroying the witness of the church to a crucified God and a cruciform, self-sacrificial people.  We’re obsessed with debates about power and authority!  How sad!  Jesus was never about claiming position, but relinquished position to meet people “from below” – from a place of servanthood and vulnerability.

If real masculinity isn’t the issue, why do so many men flock to John Eldredge books, or Christian men’s conferences, or churches with hardline positions on male roles?

I definitely think masculinity is an important issue, and I’m not wanting to blur male/female distinctions for some asexual theology.  Now, I think men are hungry for some sort of vision for their lives.  We’ve largely lost the male initiatory traditions in the West, where men were sent out at an appropriate age into the wilderness to learn key things – that they’re vulnerable, that failure is inevitable, that the world is bigger than them, that they’ll need to plug into a larger source for real strength!  Sadly, men today are hungry for strength, but find a substitute in power/authority.  Eldredge got this much right.  In Wild at Heart, he tapped into this primal hunger.  But he didn’t build the narrative around Jesus, I’d say.  In my mind, the focus became on finding your “wild” self…a necessary part of the journey…but not enough.  Maybe I missing Eldredge on this…I haven’t read the entire Eldredge “canon.”  I’d reframe it by saying that ultimately, we “find ourselves” as our lives become caught up in the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus…as the paschal mystery is formed inside of us.  And while I think you can find get a taste of this as you escape into solitude in wild places, more often than not we find it in the wild, risky world of relationship – where we’re compelled to deal with our own hearts.

I don’t hear this cruciform message in the Christian male pep talks today.  I see a lot of testosterone energy, but not as much Jesus.  There is too much chatter about finding yourself in your proper male headship (back to authority and power again!), as if headship (kephale) is about claiming power.  It’s precisely about sacrificing, suffering, relinquishing.  Dictators claim power.  Jesus relinquished it.  But we worship Jesus…not because he claimed it and demanded it, but because he served us, suffered for us, chose the way down.  Always be wary of pastors, male or female, who over-speak about authority, who don’t seem secure enough to be insecure (as Richard Rohr says), who need to “defend” the rightness of their positions.  You’ll know them by their love, not their defense of authority.

The older I get, the more I want to give away power, the less I want or need to be up front, the more I’m hesitant to write blogs like this.  I just want to be out doing it, living it, loving…that’s where I’m at my most “cruciform” self.  All the rest is usually my false self, my egocentric need to feel powerful, to be listened to, to be needed.  God help me.

How do you understand the proper roles of men and women?

First, I think the question is problematic.  My best sense is that the idea of “roles” is relatively new in the theological landscape (and in mid-20th century), and that role language is actually rooted in bad Trinitarian theology (the heresy of eternal subordinationism).  But my bigger concern is that roles become a conversation of who leads and who doesn’t, who can speak and who can’t, who has authority and who doesn’t.  It’s an exercise in missing the point.  This was never the agenda of Jesus.  He ticked off the religious “authorities” (always be careful when he hear that word!) precisely because he empowered the powerless – women, outsiders, the broken.  I think we’ve completely misread Paul on this stuff.  We’ve missed how he empowered women in the early church too, and we’ve focused on a few “exceptions” that served, I believe, as pastoral advice for specific temporal situations.  How are we different than the Pharisees on this?  We’ve missed the forest for the trees.  We’ve somehow come to believe that it’s “biblical faithfulness” to put women in their place when Jesus came freeing women, empowering outsiders.  I see a parallel in all our talk about the heretics “out there” – the Muslims, the Mormons, the liberals.  How have we come this far?  Men don’t need to be worried about their roles.  We need to be concerned about whether or not we’re living the cruciform life of Jesus, suffering and serving.  When this becomes about ra-ra “be-a-man” spirituality, the church has lost its witness, and the world laughs at us (and I think they ought to…)

What guidance do you give men who need a vision for their lives?

This is tough, because we’ve largely lost the initiatory tradition.  We’ve even turned baptism into a sweet ceremony instead of a very somber “death” ceremony (we go down into the waters in order to die, and we’re raised through Jesus). Classically, men needed the initiation precisely because they were in the one-up position, always prone to abuse power.  The wise tribal elders knew that the boy needed to leave home (sound like Jesus? You must leave home…mother, brother, sister) and enter the wilderness, in order to discover just how small you are.  The Israelites took this journey.  Jesus took it.  But today, we’re creating narcissistic young boys who don’t know their limitations, their smallness in God’s big world.  They feel power as they play video games, watch UFC fights, and get told, “You can do anything and be anything you want when you grow up.”  It’s deadly.  Young men have no other path than to become angry, violent.  They don’t know what to do with their strength.  I see it all the time in therapy.  Somehow, we’ve got to find ways to invite young men into the larger story of the Gospel, the suffering servant, the way of the Cross.  We need to find meaningful ways of showing them their smallness, their vulnerability, the inevitability of failure, or else they’ll find out the hard way when they get older.  By the way, I’m convinced this is why “Gospel language” is so prevalent today.  We’re dying for someone to tell us we don’t need to perform, that we can fail, that the story doesn’t revolve around us.  But this is a message that needs solid and meaningful rituals around it.  If we can re-discover the power of the sacraments and tell this story well, maybe that’s a start.

 

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.

Pastors and Depression

In just the past month, I’ve spoken with three depressed pastors.  Consider this startling data from Barna, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

Now, while there is much to talk about here, my interest right now is depression.  It’s often when pastors hit their early to mid-30’s that they report some form of depression, described with words like “tired,” “discouraged,” “fatigued,” “burned out,” “unmotivated,” and more.  Some wonder if they’ve ‘lost’ their call to ministry.  Others share feelings of suicide, temptations to act out sexually, or a desire to quit ministry altogether.

While I do believe some form of clinical depression may be at work, I’m also quite convinced that the 16th century mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have something to say too.  Seeing many of these same symptoms, what John and Teresa found was that something deeper was going on, a phenomenon John called “the dark night of the soul.”

I saw this recently in a 38 year-old pastor who called me for advice.  His church wasn’t growing.  His praying lacked passion.  Previously helpful spiritual practices no longer delivered.  And growing temptations to look at pornography or lose himself in Fantasy Football were worrying him and his wife.  Feeling inept and despairing, he wondered if he’d hit a ministry wall.  I told him that I sensed an extraordinary moment of grace and growth.

As I often do, I told him that he needed to see a psychologist to talk about medications and to evaluate therapeutic issues.  While St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila first envisioned the dark night with both its purgative and illuminative spiritual qualities, they were by no means dualists who discounted psychological difficulty.  Though they did not have modern categories or insights, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day, and ours.  St. John specifically counseled men and women that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night.  For him, it wasn’t an either/or, but more often a both/and.  The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.

One lesson we learn from the sixteenth century Spanish mystics is that moments like the one the pastor experienced are not problems, but opportunities.  This may be the key distinction, one that moves us beyond the question “How do we fix this?” to the question “What might I learn in this?”

In our North American context, failure and struggle is often viewed as a problem, a jagged detour on what is supposed to be the straight road of life.  It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, but one that subtlety impacts our Christian perceptions.  Thus, pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it.

When that pastor called me, he was worried for himself, for his family, and for a congregation that expected him to be ‘on’ each week.  As I listened, it was clear he’d benefit from some therapy.  He had never explored his family-of-origin before, and a few questions showed that Dad’s high expectations manifested in self-criticism and a fear of failure.  That was clear enough.  But was his issue a family-of-origin problem to be fixed?

St. John of the Cross would say No.  And I’d agree.  Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues.  And what we call difficulty or failure or even “issues” afford us moments of awakening.  I suspect St. John would see this pastor’s prayer difficulty, or his lack of passion, and even his pull toward pornography as signs of the dark night.  The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken in us a much more simple desire for intimacy with God.  And what I find in my work is that time and again, pastors tell me that they’d just like to know God…more purely, more simply…beyond the complexities we create as the neurotic men and women we are.

What we often find through this process is that we’re stripped of what we thought God to be – our theological certainties, our moralistic practices, our emotional highs – and drawn into a more pure, simple, and substantial intimacy.  However, pastors who fail to see this opportunity often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair.  It doesn’t work.

However, if we’re willing to listen in to our lives a bit more closely, we might find that God is looking for us, even in our darker moments.  The mystics were convinced God works even when we’re asleep.  And if we’re ready and willing, we may even awake to the dawn’s fresh light, more convinced than ever that God speaks not only in our successes, but even in our difficulties.