“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.

 

the emotionally and spiritually healthy pastor (part 2)

In the last post, I addressed the emotional and spiritual health of a pastor from the perspective of church history.  From that, I hope you gained some insight on the importance on pastoral soul care for Baxter and Spurgeon, Rutherford and Calvin.

But we live in different times, now.  In this post, I intend to be descriptive, and in the next I’ll be a bit more prescriptive.  For some, you’ll notice yourself in some of these descriptions.  If so, stay tuned for the next post.

Researchers on pastoral health and well-being note the significant cultural shifts that impact pastors.  And these shifts make it more difficult, I believe, for pastors to self-reflect, and to honestly answer that important question: How are you?

Let’s look at just two of these developments (and there are many, many others):

1. The professionalization of the pastoral office – notions of “success” and “performance” are quite different today.  Now I’m, by no means, fearful of well-motivated striving for success, but most pastors will never perceive themselves as a success…which may be the bigger issue. Most young pastors will leave the ministry within 5 years, in large part, because they’re exhausted, feel incompetent, or lack the support, resources, or proper training to succeed.  (As an aside, this is why Scot Sherman and I started Newbigin House).  Success is not the problem, but couched within consumer culture, pastors are inclined to believe (as most of us do) that success is graphed “up and to the right.”  In fact, I think pastors in previous generations knew well that the pastoral road was long and winding, with high high’s and low low’s, wrought with failures along the way.  Or, as a favorite writer of mine might say, it is a journey of “falling upward.”

2.  Shifts in models of training – Today, many young pastors are forfeiting seminary training for experience, often alongside another more experienced pastor.  I get it.  Many seminaries appear irrelevant.  Many seminary professors lack real church experience.  Many programs lack a vision for formation and mission while firmly rooted in theological convictions.  (I’d argue this one – among others – doesn’t).  In many seminaries (which lack adequate funding), everyone gets admitted.  Few have a definite call and a sending church.  And the coursework privileges facts over formation.  In my own research, seminary graduates felt like they were prepared to pass an ordination exam, but under-prepared in both context and character.  I often see two kinds of pastors today – those who didn’t get seminary training but have some natural leadership and ministry skills, but without theological training fall victim to pragmatic, technique-driven pastoring.   Or, those with seminary training who lack the requisite contextual and personal shaping which comes from being in the trenches.  (And both tend to be cynical of the other).  Yet, the research shows that both don’t have a great chance for longevity in ministry.

Now, you’ve heard the statistics, I’m sure.

* 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week. (Most pastors don’t feel compensated adequately for the work they put in).

* 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.

* 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

* 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.

* 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.

* 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

* 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

* 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.

* 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.

* 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church .

* 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.

* 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

* 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

And then there are the physical and emotional symptoms researchers find:

* Unusual mood swings that may include weeping without just cause, anger, or depression

* Exhaustion

* Feelings of incompetence and powerlessness

* Panic and feeling totally overwhelmed

* Avoidance strategies (addictions, fantastizing, lying, comfort foods, drinking too much, hiding in books and work)

* Fight-or-flight cycles where you rise up to intimidate and conquer others or run away from difficulties just to avoid them

* Insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which can lead to a reliance on sleeping pills

* Stomach and bowel issues

_____________________________________

My own dissertation research confirmed this.  In fact, my own story confirms it.  Despite getting counseling, being trained as a therapist, and having good mentors, my own ministry career is one filled with up’s and down’s.  I’ve had many successes in pastoral ministry, as a therapist, and as a seminary professor.  But when I don’t look after my own soul, watch out.  I’ve found myself at various times depressed, and at others angry and reactive.  I can become shamelessly judgmental.  Or, I can take my feelings underground in an array of addictive ways.

Like you, I’d like to define myself by my achievements.  I’d like to edit out the shameful parts.  But as we’ll see in the next post, it’s precisely when we befriend that often dark and shameful ‘other side’ of ourselves that we find grace and rest.  This, in fact, is exactly why Calvin began his Institutes by hailing self-knowledge.  Our humiliation is, in fact, the pathway to exaltation.

Sound familiar?

(Stats from Barna and Pastoral Care, Inc)

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…

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.

Knowing Your Calling

One of the most frequent questions I get in a city like San Francisco is this:  How do I understand my calling? San Francisco is filled with 20 and 30-something’s wrestling with call.  I like this question, because it gets beyond the typical question:  What kind of work should I do? Calling is about something larger.  But how do unique people discern their call?

There are three main components to discerning a call:  1) Understanding what God wants regarding the shape of our lives, 2) Understanding where you are, and 3) Understanding who you are.

Most people skip to the third component, ignoring the first two.  And it is an important one.  So, let’s begin with it.  Understanding who you are happens in a number of ways.  An important one is relational:  you need to ask the people who know you best.  Ask them about your gifts, your strengths and weaknesses, your relational style, your particular ways of contributing in contexts where they’ve seen you.  It’s also important to take it a step further and to understand your story.  Pick up Dan Allender’s To Be Told or Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. See a therapist.  Attempt to discern the ‘narrative shape’ of your life.  Finally, do some personality testing – an MBTI, a Campbell Skills Inventory, or another assessment that might help in the process of discernment.  Knowing yourself is an invaluable part of the process.

While understanding yourself is critical, two other components are equally as important.  You need to understand where you are.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  More often than not, we seek our own gladness without considering the world’s deep hunger.  This component has everything to do with context.  Where has God placed you?  Look around.  What compels you?  What stirs your passion?  What burdens your heart?

However, in the end, the text of your life coupled with your context must meet God and his text.  In other words, God’s narrative must be allowed to shape your own.  And this shape will always be cruciform. There is much written about ‘discovering your deepest desires.’  But desire discovered in a non-cruciform shape is disordered desire.

Consumer culture feeds on disordered desire, and (sadly) vocation takes a hit.  Consider the job fair.  It is a modern day job buffet.  We’re compelled by pay, by prestige, by position.  An anxiety grows:  “What can I do to attain the most?!”  But vocation opens up something deeper within us.  It satisfies, precisely because God joins your gladness with the world’s hunger.

I’d love to end with a story that paints a rosy picture of this.  But it’s complex.  We’re all so utterly unique.  And, we live in a broken world.  But consider a few scenarios.  I heard the story recently of a woman who stayed in a difficult job in an utterly corrupt industry, in part, because of an influence she had which gave her great satisfaction and looked a whole lot like following Jesus (cruciformity) in a difficult place. It was an improbable call, but nevertheless extraordinary.

I know a man who read a book on desire and the ‘wild’, and decided God must live in the mountains.  He moved he and his family to Colorado only to discover that God wasn’t there.  Upon returning, he told me that this ‘desire’ was more about him than about allowing God to shape him. He learned the lesson of vocation the hard way.

I know a pastor who left ministry to pursue his real calling – becoming a physician.  Later, I saw a man who was far happier – deep gladness, meeting the world’s hunger in a concrete way, and living a cross-shaped life.

All of this, I hope, points both to the complexity and beauty of calling.  In many respects, this process is harder than many of us would like it to be.  We’d love a quick vocational test, or neat-and-tidy program.  But I’d invite you to enter a process of discernment, where you ask hard questions about your life, your story, your context, and your place in God’s larger Story, all in the context of your community.  Let me know how it ‘takes shape.’