The Deeper Acceptance We Long For

“We ache for self-acceptance, and it is often a friend accepting us as we are which enables us to begin to accept ourselves. But the acceptance has to be genuine. I want the deepest part of me to be accepted, not my sanitized, plastic, cosmetic self.

Only in companionship with fellow pilgrims can I begin to tell the difference between that in me which is more me than myself and that in me which is wearing the mask or the make-up of an assigned role. Without you as companion and friend I confuse the outer shell with the inner substance. That is why I sometimes get angry and frustrated with people who say, “Relax, and be yourself!” I know they mean well by this command, but it only serves to aggravate the problem. Only by the nurturing and probing of companions can the deeper self emerge. I remember being given a button to wear at a conference some years ago. It had one word on it: “BE!” and while I longed to BE with a capital B, I pointed out that I need Christian companionship, worship, and nurture in order to discover what it might mean to BE. On that particular day for me to BE would have meant letting a great deal of sourness and mean-spiritedness spill out. Maybe that was what was expected. Maybe that was what was expected. The point is that psychology has taught me that I have many selves, that there is a whole cast of characters in me who would like to BE. The Christian faith, on the other hand, assures me that in the fellowship of Christ I can trust that the deepest in me, behind the list of actors, is one whom God knows and loves.”

— Alan Jones in Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay On Christian Friendship

Hello Depression My Old Friend

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

May began by saying goodbye to my dear mother-in-law, whose mental health story is not mine to tell, but whose heartache was evident to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her.

Both on the long drive to Iowa and during our time there, I felt a deep sadness. I looked through old pictures hoping to find a radiant smile on Marlene’s face, but only found one very early picture where she seemed barreled over by joy. In her last decade, perhaps longer, dementia stole even more from her. Knowing enough of her story, I had this sense that it was all just so unfair, that her precious life marked by a gentle spirit suffered under the afflictive fog of depression, robbing those she loved of her innate radiance and joy.

We drove back late last week, Sara and the girls in our Highlander following me in my father-in-law’s 2007 Mercury Montego, now my youngest daughter’s ride. I spent most of the drive in silence. I wasn’t feeling much. I didn’t want much, not even an appetite for an Audible book, my normal driving-fare. I’d been doing a lot of attending to others in this season, but I couldn’t even attend to myself, let alone find God in the fog.

Depression.

You don’t even know the fog has descended. For most of us acquainted with it, depression is so familiar that it can feel like a comfortable old coat. I’ve worn this coat for as long as I can remember, saved by meds and counseling and a curious spouse and good friends who attend to me on occasion. Depression and anxiety are like really old companions who lurk in the shadows, coming out now and then to remind me of their presence. Sometimes I even greet my depression: Oh hello depression, I didn’t even see you old friend. How long have you been hanging around?

My depression isn’t marked by the deep ebb. It’s more like a rolling tide that swells with joy and gratitude for a season and then releases into malaise for the next. In depression, even small things feel overwhelming. This has the effect of increasing anxiety and, for me, compounding shame as I think about those I’ll disappoint or things I’ll forget and how there’s just something chronically wrong with me because of it.

In this season, it’s hard to pray. It’s hard to write. I judge many of the sentences that come from my mouth because the hazy fog disrupts my speech.

I don’t write this to solicit pity but because “if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours” (Buechner, Telling Secrets). It’s because there are pastors and writers and theologians and counselors and chaplains who do the work of making sense out of this world for others, but who can only do it because we’re deeply acquainted with non-sense, with darkness and sadness and the familiar fog.

Buechner goes on to say that “it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” And so we tell our stories. This is mine.

Image result for downcast soul

I’m in the gray ebb right now. But I’m functioning. Because I’m a helper, you’ll still experience me caring and think I’m ok. Because I’m from the Northeast, you’ll hear a quick sarcastic quip and think I’m ok…but maybe not as funny as I think I am. Because I hate disappointing you, you’ll probably get a late email with an apology and think I’m ok. But the reality for those of us who do the mental health dance is that we’re constantly tuned to “we’re not ok.” And we perpetually wondering if there will ever be a time when it will really be ok.

I’m aware of it now, so I’ll return to familiar patterns of self-care. The Psalms become a constant companion to give voice to hidden currents of sadness. I create space to feel sadness or rage or disappointment or despair. I try to share honestly with close companions, and I ask for grace when I can’t come through (as I just did with a colleague who asked me to speak at a commencement event). I exercise. I check my alcohol intake, but even more my motivations. I try to eat healthier and take my meds. I rest into the arms of the God-who-is-always-home, greeting me with a smile even as I feel sadness.

And I wait for it to pass.

But in the meantime, I greet this familiar friend. Hello again. Another day of the dance, huh? OK. Be gentle.

And I whisper a quiet prayer to remind me of what’s true:

Christ above me.

Christ below me.

Christ to my right.

Christ to my left.

Christ behind me.

Christ before me.

Christ within me. 

To all of you struggling, I lift a prayer for your downcast spirit (Ps. 43:5) and take some comfort knowing I’m not alone.

 

 

You Can Have It All vs. It’s All Already Yours

First Sunday in Lent

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:10-11

You can have it all. Really, you can. Someone on a commercial just told me.

The tragedy is that we believe it. We strive for it. Envy burns within as our coworker gets the promotion, our siblings gets the boat, our neighbor gets the in-ground pool. We are always looking for fulfillment on the outside, aren’t we?

Jesus heard the words, too. You can have it all! And don’t think for a moment he didn’t pause. Let us not forget that Jesus was fully human. Jesus was not at all immune to the twinge of envy, the surge of lust, the enticement of you-can-have-it-all. Shortly before his crucifixion, he’d even agonize over his vocation: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).

Perhaps, Jesus even thought to himself, “I’ve heard this story before.” Surging into his memory comes the recollection of a day when, gathered with other Jewish boys, he hears the original temptation story of Genesis 3 told. Images of the slithering snake, the promise of power and knowledge, and the sting of shame flood his mind. You, Jesus, can have it all.

Consider this, too. Not only is Jesus fully human, but Jesus is also fully God. He was present at creation, in creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. I’m speculating here, but maybe something of his own original, Trinitarian imagination surged within the moment. Could it be that Jesus recalled the original simplicity and beauty of Eden, capturing it in words familiar to any Jew of that day:

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Maybe in that one crucial moment, Jesus remembered. Maybe in the midst of the you can have it all whisper, Jesus recalled – Worship the Lord and serve only him. Maybe he remembered his origins. Maybe he remembered his birthright. Maybe he remembered that humanity is born of more simple things – earth, soil, humility.  Image result for soil

That’s it, isn’t it? You see, if God is God, then you don’t have to be. You can give up your relentless, exhausting attempt to be more than you are – richer, sexier, stronger. You can remember that “everything I have is already yours.” You don’t need anything more. God is God, you’re not, and that’s that. You can remember. You can receive. You can rest, returning the humble ground of your being.

The words Jesus found in that moment were familiar ones, repeated often in his Scriptures – Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, and in many other paraphrases. They are a call to remember. It was a way of saying, “Let’s get back to the basics – to who I am, who you are, to who we are together.” Worship is not some demand of a narcissistic God, but an invitation to be re-oriented rightly, to return to the ground of our beings, to accept the gift of the dust. Worship is the great return to our depths.

It’s hard to remember. That’s why we need Lent. In the midst of a world that says, “You can have it all,” Jesus reminds us that we already do. We need not attain it. We need not achieve it. We, more often than not, simply fall into it.

__________

Prayer:

Jesus, it’s hard to imagine resisting that “you can have it all” voice as you did. The security you had in being God’s beloved is remarkable. I long for this, too. In my head, I can believe that I have it all in you, but it’s a much harder journey to live it. Will you whisper it to me regularly, by your Spirit? Amen

from Falling into Goodness

God is Always Home :: A Sermon Series

I had the great privilege of preaching a 3-part series in November 2018 called “God Is Always Home.” It’s my own unique riff on Luke 15. I channel Augustine’s lovely line: God is more near to me than I am to myself.

I hope it’s an encouragement for you during this season.

http://westminstergr.org/blog/entry/sermon-god-is-always-home

http://westminstergr.org/blog/entry/sermon-god-is-always-home-part-2

http://westminstergr.org/blog/entry/sermon-god-is-always-home-part-3

The Beautiful Mystery of You

“There is a desire in many people in the modern world to see themselves clearly. But if you listen to them, between the psychological cliches and the chatter of false intimacy, what they’re seeing is a certain limited image that they have partly projected and partly excavated, but which is terribly limited in proportion to the vast immensity that’s actually within them.” John O’Donahue

One of the hardest things about writing a book on narcissism, and thus on “narcissists,” is the reduction of a human soul to a label. In my work prior, I’ve tried to honor the complexity of human beings. I’ve often said that each of us is both beautiful and broken, hiding and hidden in Christ, accessible and utterly inaccessible. I sit with people for hours, for years even, pondering the mystery of this, the beautiful mystery of you.

The soul is vast, expansive, mysterious, complex, and even unknowable at some level. Who of us truly knows ourselves? I remind people of this each time I teach the Enneagram, recognizing that we (in the West, in particular) are consumers of quick-fix tools that give us control. Tools are good. But they cannot tell the whole story. Knowing that you’re a 1 or a 4 or a 8 really doesn’t tell me much about you at all. But with curiosity it can begin a more expansive dialogue about you – your story, your passions, your uniqueness.

Psychological insights and categories are merely tools, too. Recently, a man confessed to me that his work and sleep schedule were impacted by “trauma.” He attributed the trauma to the national news, and he compared his trauma to a woman who’d been through sexual abuse, in fact. It was confusing, and so I probed further. After some time, we determined together that he wasn’t suffering from trauma. He was borrowing a word he’d heard tossed around on social media, and in so doing he was trivializing the stories of real trauma sufferers. What we did discover together was that his habits of hours of video games, porn, and Netflix were a nasty cocktail, rendering him soul-sick, at some level. Why had he become so addicted? That was a mystery to which we’d now attend. But it was important for us to take time to name things well, and not claim labels or diagnoses just because they’re bantered about on Twitter.

I was unfollowed and unfriended by a so-called expert in biblical and psychological understandings of narcissism recently because I was seen as too soft on narcissism. Once applied, the label of “narcissism,” for this person, is a label of wickedness which is irreparable. She could not believe that shame undergirds the narcissistic persona, or that a true self, imaging God, resides most deeply in one who is narcissistic. In a sense, to be a narcissist was to be irredeemably wicked. The label became the ultimate definition, and even damnation, of a human being.

Elinor Greenberg writes

Nobody is a Borderline. Nobody is a Narcissist. Nobody is a Schizoid. This may seem a strange way to begin a book on diagnosis, but it needs to be said. When we diagnose, we are describing a pattern, a particular Gestalt, never a person. All people are unique. Labels, however well intended, cannot do justice to human complexity.[i]

I’ve wrestled with this insight, even as I’ve decided in my writing to continue to use the psychological label “narcissist.” I think we can do this while holding the complexity of each image bearer.

The dualistic mind prefers easy and tight divisions – us vs. them, bad vs. good, grace vs. legalism, sick vs. well, unhealthy vs. healthy, busy vs. rested. This kind of labeling gives us power. But often when we label, we refuse to admit our own complexity. Some of the most (seemingly) psychologically savvy folks I’ve known over the years have been master labelers, quickly diagnosing a pathology or naming an Enneagram type, and yet I’ve known some of these folks to be quite unaware of their own control issues or pathological patterns. The desire for mastery, especially mastery of the soul, may reveal something about our own pain and brokenness.

I feel a greater weight writing this book in part because of the humility it demands. What’s my agenda? What am I missing about my own secret motives for writing? What is my own need behind definitions and labels? I find myself more and more cautious, wanting to honor complexity without minimizing the real harm done by toxically narcissistic people. It’s not easy.

Image result for broken self imageAnd perhaps this invitation to humility, to a recognition of the vast spaciousness of each soul, is the hard work demanded of us today in a time of instant-definition. As O’Donahue says, we know so very little about each other from the images we project. I’m still learning things about Sara after almost 25 years of marriage. What makes each of us live and vote and love and eat in particular ways is an extraordinary mystery.

As always, there is a dance in this. I stand in awe before mystery. I seek not to label or judge, but long to know another at her depth. And yet, I’m given tools which, when used well, help me to help others, by naming patterns and personas which block vulnerability, stifle intimacy, and even threaten safety. I recognize the paradox of this even as I realize that there are depths of my own soul I’ve never explored. As so, I stand in humble awe, and yet I proceed, with the care of a surgeon with a scalpel.

__________________________________________

[i] Elinor Greenberg, Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 3. Thanks to my friend, writer and therapist Heather Drew, for introducing me to this helpful book.

 

Introducing My New Video Course

I’m excited to share with you my video course An Introduction to Contemplative PrayerThis five-video course is something I believe can be transformation for you, if you give yourself not just to understanding but to practice.

These days, mindfulness, yoga, meditation and other embodied practices are all-the-rage. Popular authors like Daniel Siegel, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman and others are inviting ordinary women and men into life-transforming practices. Apps such as CALM, HEADSPACE and a host of yoga applications are keeping us accountable and giving us concrete practices for relief from anxiety, rest from our weariness, and rhythms for wholeness.

Yet, the ancient Christian tradition has offered practices of awareness, embodiment, breathing, centering, and intention for centuries. This course invites you into contemplative spirituality and practice in the Christian tradition. In the five videos, we explore the basics of contemplative prayer, the core theological value of “letting go,” the neuroscientific basis for it, the invitation to wholeheartedness, and the resource of contemplative prayer for our action in the world. Each video offers 30-40 minutes of teaching, along with practices to engage in-between sessions. The resources I offer come with dynamic links to books, videos, websites, and other important pathways for your further journey.

After completing this course:

  • you will have a strong foundation for your own understanding of and practice in the Christian contemplative prayer tradition
  • you will have practices that bring you greater life and vitality, while opening up deeper pathways of intimacy with God.
  • you will enjoy greater centeredness and resilience which will empower you to be a more present, healthy, and impactful person in whatever you do.
  • you will be armed with a wealth of resources for a continued journey
  • you will feel empowered to intentionality choose pathways of wholeness

Jump in, and do this on your own, with friends, in a church triad or small group, with a colleague, or a new friend in another state. I really do believe it will be transformational for you!

GO TO COURSE

Reflections on Two Years of Every.Damn.Day Contemplative Prayer

A little more than two years ago, I set out on an inner adventure. Contemplative practices came and went over the years, but I was ready to commit. A few things conspired to motivate me. A deep dive into neuroscience convinced me that our brains are malleable, and that with intention and practice we can literally die to old neural pathways and live into new, healthier neural pathways. A second realization was connected to my pace of life and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which served me well in the first half of life but seemed insufficient, at best, and just plain unhealthy, at worst. Finally, I was on the verge of my first sabbatical, and rather than writing a book I intuited that this season required something far more difficult – a wrestling match with my “many selves,” as Elizabeth O’Connor might put it. I needed to venture into the dark wood and die. Sounds like a fun sabbatical project, huh?

These are my reflections on the good, the bad, and the ugly of this two year odyssey.

The good.

At 47, I feel more at home in my being, held inexplicably and unfathomably in Love. The paradise of God is not a destination, it is within. It is not acquired, but realized as gift, as already ours. On a cruise a week or so ago, I could not help but look around at the tropical beauty and feel as if I don’t need to travel 1500 miles for it – beauty resides within, the paradisal temple is as near as our own breathe. Augustine says, “Why are you always rushing out of doors but are unwilling to return to your own house. Your teacher is within?” The “interior castle” is not some faraway place, but the center of our being.

My contemplative practice usually involves 20 or so minutes of silence, breathing, and dwelling in Love, like a sponge in the Ocean of God. A line from a Cavanaugh poem accompanies me – “Me I throw away, me sufficient for the day.” Silence opens you to every inner obstacle to union, and the distractions pummel you like hail on an April day in Michigan. The ‘many selves’ have been large-and-in-charge for years, and in my case they’ve served me well. Our “false self,” as Merton puts it, isn’t bad, it’s just stubborn and egocentric. And in these 20 or so minutes, I’ve felt the grip of these imposters loosening, maybe just a bit, giving way to Self, in Christ. Old neural pathways which led to destinations called Envy, Comparison, Control, and more are giving way to new pathways which lead to Love, Rest, Belonging.

That’s the good. Some call this “experiential union,” and it feels like a daily bath in Love. Me-sufficient-for-the-day was a ‘me’ that pushed hard for a very long time, burying my shame under a mound of achievements, constantly creating, producing, and never able to turn off the inner after-burner. I returned to my colleagues after sabbatical without some major accomplishment. (Some say self-publishing ‘Falling Into Goodness’ served as that, but writing that felt like rest to me). Rather, I had this palpable sense, maybe for the first time, that I belonged, to them, to God, to the world. I’ve always felt like I was born on the Island of Misfit Toys. My Enneagram 4 inner narrative has repeatedly whispered, “You don’t belong. You’ll be found out as a fraud.” And I’ve continually tried to do as much as I can to make myself invaluable, even uniquely special. But emerging from sabbatical, there was a sense of – it’s ok. You are here. You are held. Be here now. Show up as you. You don’t have a shiny ‘sabbatical report’ to present – you have you. That’s enough.

So, that’s good, right? What’s the bad, then?

‘Bad’ is not the best descriptor. ‘Challenge’ might be better. The challenge is this – if I’m not my drivenness, what am I? If I’m not accomplishing, who am I? One of the messages of my false self (selves!) is that I need to create a sense of worthiness. A challenge of contemplative prayer is simply to sit in a way that isn’t doing, accomplishing, or mattering in the typical way, but simply being. It is inefficient. And it opens you up to the ugly demons you’ve been running from – shame, depression, insecurity, anxiety.

People see me (mostly) as winsome and confident. My highly intuitive friends and students can see through this sometimes, and sense my anxiety and insecurity. However, in the past couple of years, I’ve had to greet these old companions, facing them, acknowledging them, inviting them to be held in Love. Depression and anxiety have lived just below the surface of my life for decades. And my drivenness, living always a few feet off the ground and above my limitations, has kept them at bay. That…and Zoloft. But the Lenten invitation to return to the dust of my limitations reminded me that I’m only human, that in my mid-forties I can no longer push as hard as I used to, that my strategies are unsustainable. And through this practice of contemplation, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the ‘me’ that is emerging, at times. The question is: will you like me? That’s been the age-old question, I suppose.

I was speaking with my two good friends who sit with me every Wednesday afternoon in a space where we can show up with these questions. I shared with them that I’ve felt less comfortable in the classroom this year. My other selves could show up as funny, sarcastic, sage-like, academic (for whatever occasion!)…but who am I when I’m not wearing the dressing of the false self? I’ve felt young and insecure, at times. In trying to befriend my depression, I’ve been melancholic instead of witty, flat instead of manic. A great gift in this season has been yoga, but yoga puts you in touch with your body, and it, too, conspires to prevent me from avoiding what lurks underneath. Sometimes, I’m not sure if the ‘me’ emerging from the transformative chrysallis is a beautiful butterfly or an ugly moth.

The dying sucks. Living this contemplative journey, however, feels like the only authentic way. It is a journey into and through the dark wood, so controlling the narrative, controlling the process, controlling the outcome isn’t possible. Merton writes, “There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” What if the new self isn’t special? Isn’t cool? Isn’t relevant? What if the new self is an ugly duckling? What if the new self is rejected?

I fear that the disciples didn’t recognize the Resurrected Jesus because they were looking for someone else. We’re always looking for something else, someone else, someone more spectacular. The first contemplatives used the wilderness temptations of Jesus as the basis for contemplative prayer – we do battle with our demons, with our ‘many selves’, with every voice within which seeks to rival the true self. Jesus knew who he was, though, refusing to become spectacular and powerful. He was Loved, inexplicably held in an embrace that allowed him to walk toward suffering. Jesus is the ultimate ‘grown up’ in this sense, and I want to grow up too – to become myself, hidden with Christ in God. The work is hard, though.

Two years ago, I committed to these practices in earnest. Every damn day, as they say. Parts of me are still rebelling – “What are you doing, Chuck? – we had a good thing going.” I’ve become convinced that there is no other way, though. You can’t think or theologize your way there. You’ve got to submit to the dying-and-rising, even when parts of you cry out in rebellion. I’ve called this in my writings the journey to “wholeheartedness,” oneness and worthiness in Jesus. It’s beautiful, as I said at the outset, and it’s scary as hell.

I feel compelled to write more about this ‘growing up’ – I’ve been hesitant, and just wanted to honor the journey for some time. So, if you’re up for it, I may write some more in the coming days and weeks. For now, a sacred love poem to God from Rilke that has become a prayer for me, and maybe can become a prayer for you.

“I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.”

 

 

RETREATS AND CONFERENCES OFFERED

*New Retreat! The Seven Paths to Transformation

Based on new material for my next book, I explore seven unique paths or stages of growth and transformation toward union with Christ. Inspired by St. Teresa’s “seven dwellings” in her Interior Castle, I integrate the wisdom of Scripture, developmental psychology, spiral dynamics, and more to imagine the places of challenge, growth and grace for a transformative journey. This unique “inner pilgrimage” was first inspired by St. Augustine who wrote: 

Why do you go away from your selves and perish from yourselves? Why do you go the ways of isolation? You go astray by wondering about… You are wandering without, an exile from yourself. Return to your heart! See you there what perhaps you perceive about God because the image of God is there. In the inner being Christ dwells; in the inner being you are renewed according to the image of God.

This unique offering can be designed as a standard conference and it can be adapted as a contemplative retreat. 

 

Wholeheartedness: Experiencing Oneness and Worthiness in JesusIMG_0361

Based off of my book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion and Healing the Divided Heart, we explore our lives of fragmentation, exhaustion, and never feeling quite enough. This very human experience is not new – its roots are ancient. But we need not live any longer feeling pulled in a thousand different directions, playing our futile worthiness games to satisfy unattainable expectations. Wholeheartedness is not a goal – it’s a present reality that we surrender into. Together, we explore what this journey looks like. 

Toughest People to Love: Becoming Courageous Lovers of Ourselves and Others

We all experience difficult people in our lives. More significantly, we experience our own pain and brokenness! Relationship is difficult, particularly in a world filled with people formed with unique stories and wounds. The self-help industry has provided recipes for fixing ourselves and others, but deeply biblical, historical and psychological framework reveals that we are far more complex than we realize…and not easily fixed, like machines. In this conference/retreat, we explore our unique image-bearing identity, what makes us human, what gets us stuck, and how we get unstuck. We explore the dynamics of disorder, addiction, wisdom, and self-knowledge. And in so doing, we gain a vision for courageous love for ourselves and everyone else, even the toughest people to love.

The Enneagram: Nine Obstacles to Union with Christ, Nine Invitations to Freedom

Having studied the Enneagram since the early 2000’s, I am grateful to see the growing interest among all stripes of Christians in this tool for self-awareness and transformation. The Enneagram’s roots are ancient, and its imagination is deeply Christian. It reveals our basic obstacles toward union by illuminating unique ways in which we get our needs met other than from God. Pulled toward power, security, or affection, we often find ourselves stuck in self-sabotaging patterns that rob us of joy and disrupt relationships. In this retreat, we explore the nine habits of the Enneagram, and imagine new ways of living and loving toward health and wholeness. 

Dying to Be Loved: Embracing the Transformational Journey of Marriage

Every good marriage experiences many deaths. While the young couple in premarital counseling might proclaim proudly that they’ve never fought, veteran couples will reveal to you their battle scars borne through conflict and disappointment, woundedness and reconciliation. We cannot avoid the inevitable struggles of marriage, but we can learn to identify them, embrace them, and be transformed by them. In this retreat/conference, we explore the difficult dance of lovers, the ways that we stumble, and the pathways toward deep love and attachment. Employing the ancient Trinitarian wisdom of Scripture and the invaluable insights of psychology, we weave together a picture of participation in a divine dance with the One who made us to thrive together. 

The Three Movements of Faith: A Retreat Through Luke 15

The story of the runaway son whose journey home to the Father brings drama and delight may be one of the most beloved in Scripture. It reveals insights about how we cope and relate, how we self-sabotage and secure happiness, and how our deepest original dignity is ultimately revealed. We trace three movements of faith we all experience in unique ways: fragmentation to security, fear to freedom, and from fixing to (courageous and self-giving!) loving. I’ve also done this as a men’s retreat and a women’s retreat. 

Finding God in the Wilderness

Based off the insights from my first book Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places, this retreat invites participants on a journey from their own unique and personal “Egypt’s” through the wilderness of life’s winding and rocky road into the promised freedom of union with God. We explore four signposts along the way: Egypt, Sinai, Wilderness, and Union. Each awakens us to new depths of how we’ve been hurt and how we’ve hurt others. Each invites us to examine where we are on our own journeys, and what might keep us ‘stuck’ in a particular rut. We discover that our stories are ultimately revealed in the beautiful, honest, and gritty Story of God. 

The Spiritual Life of the Leader (a retreat uniquely designed for all kinds of leaders, but offered on occasion to specific leaders like church planters)

This leader’s retreat is designed to address the core spiritual and emotional needs of leaders, the common obstacles for leaders, and pathways to health and wholeness. I share many personal stories and adopt many of the key concepts in a course I teach called Pastor as Person, along with my own experience founding two counseling centers and co-founding Newbigin House of Studies, SF. 

BOOK RELEASE: Falling into Goodness – Lenten Reflections

Lent is nearly upon us! Ash Wednesday is Wednesday March 1. I’ve been working on a little side project – a Lenten devotional – complete with short Bible readings, reflections, and prayers. The Kindle version is available now, with the paperback releasing within days. I invite you to use this personally, with a friend, in a small group, or in a variety of other ways you might imagine! To whet your appetite, I’ve included the first reflection for Ash Wednesday. If you like it, buy it today, write a review on Amazon, and share with friends!

RETURN TO THE GROUND

Ash Wednesday

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Ecclesiastes 3:20

Ash Wednesday may be the most formative day of my year. On Ash Wednesday, we hit RESET. On Ash Wednesday, we return to the ground.

I don’t like the ground. I’ve designed my reality so that I can avoid the ground. I hover three feet above the ground at all times, resolved to avoid the calamities, the humiliations, the shame of life on the ground. The pace of my life, the avoidance of my pain, my perfectionistic tendencies – all reveal my fear of the ground.

When I was young, I remember Ash Wednesday as a rather morbid affair. I recall it as a day when pastors hammered the message of human sinfulness into our stubborn ears. I imagined the pastor waking up that morning like a delighted little child, anxious for this Lenten season of sanctioned guilt-driven preaching. To my young mind, the whole dark season felt like a manipulative ploy led by robed and hooded “sour-faced saints”[i] scheming to remind Christians just how scandalously sinful they really are. I didn’t know why we couldn’t just skip to Easter.

No one ever told me.

No one ever told me about the power of these words:

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

No one ever told me what a gift it would be to return to the ground of my being, to relinquish the exhausting attempt to fly just a bit above everyone else, to relax my fatigued ego. No one ever told me that Lent was an invitation to rest.

Have you heard about this gift to us, to the church, called Ash Wednesday? Could it be a gift to you, as well?

For years as a pastor, I had the extraordinary privilege of imposing ashes on foreheads. Sometimes I longed to say, “It’s alright…come on down. Return to your ground. It’s so much easier down here.”

On the ground and in the dust there is no façade. No more hiding. Only rest.

And it’s where Jesus can find you. Jesus came down, you see. To the dust. In the flesh. And so, you no longer need to prove yourself or protect yourself. There is no ladder to climb, no stairway to the pearly gates, no performance strategy, no purity ritual.

Only surrender. Only rest.

“Come to me, all you who are weary,” Jesus says. “Not up there…down here!”

No more ladders. No more climbing. Into the dust, where God meets you and renews you.

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Prayer:

Creator God, you made me from the dust, but that has not always been a pleasant thought. Can you help me imagine dust as a welcome place, however, where I’m enough, just as I am, just as you’ve created me, just as you hold me in Jesus? I long for the rest this might bring. Amen

[i] St. Teresa of Avila

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thoughts on how to have difficult conversations

My denomination is engaged in a difficult conversation. But aren’t we all, and more often than we think? We’re always dancing around possible difficult conversations – with bosses and pastors, tough-to-love family members, obnoxious small group members, pestering employees, unhelpful custom service reps, and more.

As I prepare to facilitate a time to consider how we best have difficult conversations, I’m tapping into some categories I introduced in my book Toughest People to Love. Let’s look at some diagnostic categories for our difficult conversations.

  1. Is this a conversation I need to have? We’ve got to take a bit of time to consider this. Some difficult conversations feel extremely urgent in the moment. Answering this question often requires us to take a good, long look within ourselves first (which, of course, is a good “Jesus practice” – what’s in your heart?). I remember being triggered to near rage when a friend revealed to me a very harsh judgment by a supervisor of mine. I typed twenty different versions of a text blasting this person, but (thankfully) didn’t send one. I talked to a few friends in the days after, and my anger settled into a more sober sense of disappointment. As I transitioned from a more reactive to a more reflective place, I recognized that a conversation could come in time, but it was far more important to examine my own heart and my own reactivity. Principle: Rather than trying to change others, look to take the harder path of inner change.
  1. What do I fear and what do I need? When we relax our immediate ‘triggered’ prompt to react, we can tap in to our hearts where we find the “wellspring of life.” Our hearts tell us what we fear and what we need, and offer the wisdom to discern the path forward. The Spirit dwells within and becomes our conversation partner toward this end. When I learned of my supervisor’s comments, my rage took over my body. I felt blended with it. I could have punched a hole through a concrete wall. But as I descended into my heart and engaged a more reflective conversation, I experienced several fears – losing approval, being misunderstood, and a loss of joy in my work. I allowed myself some time to experience the reality of these fears and the concurrent sadness around the disconnect with my supervisor (all the while tending to the part of me that wanted to circumvent the entire process and rage!). In time, I began to discern the need for a calm and clear conversation with this person. I scheduled a face to face at that point. Principle: Rather than sabotaging relational connection with a quick response, honor your heart and discern what you fear and what you need.
  1. Exercise Curiosity. In Krista Tippett’s new book Becoming Wise, she notes that civil discourse requires that we identify the ‘good’ in the position of the other. This requires a posture of curiosity, a genuine interest in hearing from the other person and, even more, listening to their story. Much of our political and ecclesial discourse tends towards polarization – they are bad, we are good…their position is wrong, mine is right. We cite our authorities quickly – the Bible, the Constitution, the wise thinkers who agree with us. When we identify our fears and needs, we are able to approach a conversation with calm, compassion, and curiosity. I recall sitting down with my supervisor and beginning with conversation about life and family before getting into the tough discourse. When I mustered up the courage to engage, I said, “I’ve heard something about your perception of me that initially triggered great frustration in me, but I’m really curious to hear from you. May I ask you about it?” I didn’t sabotage my supervisor with my my frustrations and suspicions, but offered a chance to engage if my supervisor was willing. Of course, in that moment the other person’s anxiety ramps up, and I want to be aware of how I can cultivate non-anxious presence in that moment. My supervisor appreciated the opportunity to hear from me and respond, and while we did not ultimately come to the place of clarity I hoped for, we maintained a sense of connection and preserved a productive working relationship. Principle: Curiosity does not require us to agree, but invites us to listen non-anxiously and hear the heart of the other.
  1. Exercise Wisdom. Wisdom and folly are important categories when engaging difficult conversations. Folly implies hiddenness (Genesis 3), an inability to live in the light of truth, a tendency toward self-deception. Wise people are not perfect, but are capable of seeing their ‘stuff’ and repenting. Wise people do not tend to scapegoat and blame, but exercise curiosity with themselves and others. Those who tend toward folly blame-shift and deflect. They maintain positions with ultimate certainty and little curiosity and a fragile sense of their own inner authority. Now, I do wish Scripture was more clear and helpful to us on dealing with fools:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)

Even the writer of Proverbs is confused when it comes to have difficult conversations! Maybe that can allow us to practice some self-compassion and receive God’s grace when we find conversations difficult. I do think that Scripture paints, in broad strokes, a movement or continuum from foolishness to wisdom, from being hidden to living in the truth. In Toughest People to Love I offer three categories – Simple Fools, Self-Consumed Fools, and Sinister Fools.

SINISTER FOOLS

Sinister fools have no capacity for self-knowledge, humility, or repentance. Likely deeply hurt at an early age, they have now become the “bully.” They win through intimidation, manipulation, and demanding ultimate loyalty. They are always right, and they claim the backing of Scripture, Polity, the Constitution, or whatever text or person they deem authoritative. Because curiosity and compassion are impossible, it is important to consider carefully how or if you will engage a Sinister Fool. There is no healthy conversation possible when you disagree, only war. And so, more often than not, I counsel people to protect themselves, and to tread with extreme care and caution.

SELF-CONSUMED FOOLS

As the title implies, this kind of folly is marked by an orientation toward self-interest. While not cruel like the Sinister Fool, the Self-Consumed Fool may employ charm, compliments, affirmation and seeming agreement before turning on you. The Self-Consumed Fool is deeply scared and insecure, and so protecting his truth, his position, and his rights is paramount. Sadly, the Sinister Fool is often barely capable of seeing this. Even repentance, when it comes, feels like a form of self-protection. You might experience a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde effect with the Self-Consumed Fool, and in that you’ll be as confused as the writer of Proverbs as to how and when you should engage. Be wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove as you engage. On the one hand, I have compassion for the Self-Consumed Fool, because it is obvious that there is deep insecurity, shame, and over-compensation at play. I try to connect to his vulnerability and create a safe place to engage honestly. However, depending on how self-protected and hidden the “true self” of a Self-Consumed Fool is behind a false self of charm, competence, and certainty, you may not get very far. Choose what hills you are willing to die on very carefully with this one.

SIMPLE FOOLS

I hope that most of us, with gratitude to Jesus, are Simple Fools. We are simultaneously running toward the light of truth within and unware of ourselves in key ways. Yet, we are receptive, willing to see our blind-spots, eager to confess when we’ve blown it. Simple Fools are not wallflowers; they have deep convictions. However, they hold their convictions with confidence, not certainty (see Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence). They choose connection rather than certitude because they live from a deeper inner authority and do not need to attach their ego to power or a position. They confess that they could be wrong. They affirm, with John Calvin, that we are all like little children whose theologizing is like baby talk. More so, they long to become like little children – playful, generous, never taking themselves too seriously. It is more important to them to shed their ego than to win an argument, more important to maintain connection than demand affirmation. They hold their convictions with a depth and beauty that is attractive, not coercive. Simple Fools are grateful to engage difficult conversations, and model for the rest of us how it’s done.

Conclusion

We enter difficult conversations with fear and trembling because we long to live in relational harmony, justice, and goodness with one another. We are made in the image of a Trinitarian God whose relational harmony could only be described by early church theologians with the image of a dance. The “perichoretic” perfect choreography of the Trinity is our design, our inheritance, and our destiny. This is why union and oneness is central to the Upper Room discourse of Jesus. Jesus prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. But oneness takes work.

TyporamaIn my various roles as pastor, therapist and professor over twenty years, I am mindful of how long it takes to move from ego-protective certainty to connection, from “I am right and you are wrong” to “I am curious to hear how you got there.” I see married couples for months in counseling before they can even lower their defenses and take a step toward one another. I see abuse victims whose pains runs so deep that the thought of living in any way except self-protectively feels all-too-vulnerable. I work with victims of racism whose bodies carry decades of hyper-vigilance and trauma, and who have little time and patience to hear the defensive excuses of others. I teach women and men whose theology was crafted in a particular context and with particular certainties who feel like doubt about one issue amounts to the collapse of an entire theological system. There is much that mitigates against wise, healthy, non-anxious, curious conversations.

But what is in us is more powerful than what divides us. The great equalizer is the imago dei. The one you disagree with remains an image-bearer. The one who hurts you, even still, is one whose being is the dwelling place of the Spirit. Our disagreement does not diminish God’s commitment to us. Our attacks against the other do not denigrate the dignity of God’s divine image. We commit to difficult conversations, amidst difference, because the One who dwells in us dwells in the other, because the way, the life, and the truth has taken up residence in each and every one of us – conservative and liberal, gay and straight, citizen and immigrant. God seems quite pleased to disperse his presence amidst difference. God seems quite pleased to cultivate unity amidst disagreement. Perhaps our penchant for uniformity and agreement can even be idolatrous, at times?

I enter into a difficult conversation with a heart to listening to the Spirit in the other. If all truth is God’s, our commitment to connection will allow us, in time, to discern together. It takes time, because the ego is most often in the driver’s seat with all its rightness and certainty and judgment. Committing to difficult conversations and to difficult relationships requires deep discipleship, because we will surely die along the way. The Communion Table became so central to our family because at it we die, we rise, and we return with and in Christ.

I have much more to die to. Do you? Every difficult conversation requires some kind of death. It invites us to the narrow way of Jesus. The easy way is the way of avoidance, judgment, distance, attack, categorization, and separation. The way of the Cross calls us to much, much more.

Additional Resources

Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love

Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication

Transforming Church Conflict, Van Deusen Hunsinger and Latini

Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet

Dan Allender, Bold Love

Patterson and Grenny, Crucial Conversations

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

http://www.restorativecircles.org/