Disruptive Grace

Category: Uncategorized

The Dark Year of the Soul (Part 3)

When I attempted to interpret the meaning of my dreams (the tiger eating my dog , the Voice beckoning me to take the leap into the black well to end unnecessary suffering), I began to realize that the dreams were themselves an interpretation of what my life was becoming. I was entering into a kind of paradox whereby I would lose what I had deemed to be the Good as the only gateway into the New – losing God in order to find Self, losing Self in order to find truth, losing transcendence in order to find immanence. God was becoming unnecessary, and because I was letting go of God (and God was letting go me), I began to let go of much more.

I began to feel liberated when I first let go of a specific doctrine and did not perish as a result – in this case, the doctrine of physical resurrection (thanks to a small book recommended by my dear friend, David Congdon, entitled “Secular Christianity” by Ronald Gregor Smith, a student of Bultmann). It wasn’t so much that I felt that physical resurrection had lost a battle to historical criticism – rather, it was lost because it was existentially meaningless to me. Our beliefs are pragmatic tools, and when they stop working for us, it becomes necessary to jettison them in favor of new ones. The more intensely I began to love life on its own terms, the less need I had for God as a mediating being, and the Church as a mediating structure.  I think we often fail to recognize the ways in which the content of belief is not nearly as important as the process of believing itself (something Peter Rollins helped me to recognize in his book, Insurrection). Believing has a certain function that is designed to help us, to act as salve for our woundedness, and it is rarely present-tense. Rather, believing helps give us a narrative of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, but often in a way that is supposed to make the present bearable for us. At best, it gives us an ethical framework for how we are supposed to act in the here and now.

But, as with most cases in which we interpret “evil” to be in the world, there comes a subtle point where one begins to realize that what we thought was a means of survival has actually kept us from thriving. This insight has wreaked havoc in the modern Christian missionary movement, as noted by the book with the succinct title, “When Helping Hurts.” This criticism is exactly what Marx spoke of what he called religion the opiate of the people. Opiates are effective painkillers and can help us to soothe when we are unable to deal with the root causes of the pain.  But they are unable to vanquish the source of pain, and they are also highly addictive, such that we become dependent on them in a way that costs us the very life we were hoping to uphold. As Pete said last night in his talk, “when we accept the promises of Heaven, there is always Hell to pay.”

And individuals aren’t the only ones with hell to pay.  We are beings-in-relation, which means we are believers-in-relation, and the crisis that gives way to change cannot help but create crisis in the lives of those we love and cherish. In the case of a crisis of belief, it’s not the shifting of the content of belief that matters, as much as the process by which it occurs. As the content of my beliefs began to shift (largely in the form of pure loss rather than substitution), I began to feel a strain on my relationships. It turned out that God was functioning as an ideology that helped to mediate my relationships, to give them meaning, to secure them. Of course, to many, I was their pastor. But really I was their friend too, and this was what marked me as a gifted pastor in their eyes. I had no intention of cutting off relationships when I began this journey, but my decision to no longer hinder or repress the change that was happening started putting others on the defensive. They felt like they were personally under attack, that I was hurting them, that I didn’t value my relationship with them. Anxiety was increasing, but as we know with most growth cycles in family systems theory, such anxiety is inevitable. What is not inevitable is how we choose to respond and deal with such anxiety.

My journey was exciting and adventurous as long as I kept it to myself and shared it only with like-minded people. I went to Belfast to hear Pete speak over three days, and made a wonderful group of friends with whom I could feel safe to explore. It was when I returned home, and began a process of “coming out,” so to speak, that I began to feel reality shifting in a not so favorable way. I’m highly sensitive to the anxiety of others, and I have a long history of taking responsibility for making others feel a certain way. My wife was the first to sense this shift in me, and I think she picked up on an emotional distance in me. She wanted to know what I was thinking, but when I would crack open the lid of my mind and heart, she was offended. We were caught in a difficult bind, a dance of ambivalence, whereby I would distance myself, she would pursue, I would turn around and disclose, she would be offended by the content of my honesty (which, I later realized, did NOT mean she was offended by the process of honesty itself!), and I would shutdown as a means of protecting myself and her from the discomfort and anxiety. The problem with shutting down (or stone-walling, as John Gottmann calls it), is it only exacerbates the problems and becomes a kind of relational neglect. My wife felt that I was living a lie, duping people from the pulpit, being inauthentic and lacking integrity. She pushed me, for better or for worse, to disclose the truth about what was going in my mind. My tension, the one I had to hold in the pulpit, was unbearable for her. She walked out of one of my sermons because the pain was too great. I wish I had held myself together, but once again, I felt her response was my fault. And because God was the center of our marriage, I began to feel that my decision to change and shift was a betrayal of our vows.

Church family systems are not unlike marital family systems in terms of how they function, and because I was the same man in the bedroom that I was in the pulpit, the same dynamics began to play out in my ministry. I began to shutdown emotionally as a pastor because I had already written the story of how it would end – there was no way to make it work, no way anybody would understand me, no way to remain a pastor given what was happening to me. What I didn’t realize was that I seriously overfunctioning as a caretaker by taking responsibility for the responses (and yes, some reactions) of my members, and trying to protect myself and them. In truth, knowing family systems theory didn’t help me practice self-differentiation. I was poorly differentiated from the beginning (the only difference is that I can accept that about myself now).

Some members began to pick up on an indifference, a lack of energy, a depressed mood during my sermons. They were emotionally connected with me, and immediately felt a distance. One member followed me into my study in tears and confronted me, saying, “Chris, you’re not yourself. What’s going on? If you’re not happy, you don’t have to stay here. We just want you to be happy!” I later invited this friend over for lunch to disclose how my beliefs were changing. I told her I did not believe in a physical resurrection anymore because I didn’t need to – it was unnecessary for me. Immediately in that moment, I felt her body shift, trying to hold herself together. And to her credit, she did, but in a way that brought a strong and painful boundary to our relationship: “Chris, I appreciate your honesty, but I will not be able to take communion from you anymore.” Again, rather than letting this member have her own experience, I internalized this message and took it personally: I had acted in a form of betrayal, and was responsible for her pain.

I preached a sermon where I attempted to explain my recent lethargy by disclosing my doubts, and preached about the need for the church to be a safe space for doubt and personal transformation. Many members greatly appreciated this disclosure and privately sent me messages of gratitude, sharing that such safety was what they wanted for themselves, and that it was unfair to allow congregants to doubt but not pastors. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready for this kind of self-disclosure, and it kicked up anxiety for them. One elder informed me that a big-giver in the congregation had approached him and said, “If Chris does this again, I’m not coming back. He should’ve dealt with his doubts in seminary!” The elder, being privy to the strained finances of the church, looked at me with great anxiety. He was caught between his duty to the church but also not wanting to see me get hurt. But the damage was done though – I was hurt. And now I was pissed at a church structure that could not journey with me.

I made the mistake of doubling-down in my next sermon. I unleashed a tirade of biblical historical criticism, declaring that a faith uninformed by scholarship is no faith at all, but merely naïveté. This did not go over well, to say the least, because again, it was so unlike me. Where was gentle, loving, Pastor Chris? I had gone from depressed one Sunday, to the point of over-sharing the next, and now angry (an emotion churches are not well-equipped to handle even when expressed in a healthy way).

I had informed my session of elders that I was indeed falling apart, feeling disconnected from my vocation. They wrote to my executive presbyter, who in turn met with me and gave me some wise counsel. At first, our agreement was to create a kind of buffer for self-exploration: no preaching for a month, continued therapy, and time to discern a longer-term plan of action. I told him that not only was I feeling disconnected from my vocation, but that I felt that God no longer was necessary. I met with all sorts of kind and wonderfully supportive pastors who were able to just be present with me in my crisis. Many of them had walked this road before – most had made amends, others had left. The choice was mine to make.

The last couple of weeks were total hell, and I was not of a clear mind. I wrote a sabbatical proposal, with the help of my executive presbyter, and sought approval from the session. But two things had happened right before I submitted it: I had enrolled in a web-development online course (because I felt financially vulnerable in the case that I should have to leave ministry for good), and my wife had gotten a full-time government job. My session wisely explained to me that if I was to take a real sabbatical, I could not begin training for another career (in hindsight, the fact that I had entertained this option openly revealed just how “out-the-door” I was). I ended my proposal in tears, with a huge apology, feeling so sorry for putting them through this, feeling like I was out of control, feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to stay put-together, and disclosing that I was tired of “faking it till I make it.”  After 3 years of ministry, I felt I had not gotten any closer to making it.  And this was not something that could be cured by taking one of those cherished jobs at another church as an associate in an urban context with hip young people.  There was something more afoot for me.

The executive presbyter later informed me that, based on discussion with the session, it would be recommended that I step down as pastor. This was based on two things: first, the nature of my struggle, which would likely not be settled in the short-term, and would leave the church hanging in the meantime, and perhaps create undue pressure on me to “make it work.” Second, I was informed that there were enough influential people in the church who would be extremely difficult to deal with if I returned. In some sense, I was greatly relieved. What really blew me away was that the session agreed to give me 4 months severance, so that there would be no doubt in my mind that they had truly loved me. And, despite all my doubts, I never once doubted the fact that this church had loved and accepted me or my family.  What I doubted was that “God/Jesus/Church” were somehow necessary for such love to occur.

The question was, having been loved and cherished by countless people throughout my life, could I learn to love myself on my own terms? What happens when you show compassion for yourself without God?   What happens when you realize that you’ve based your entire sense of worth on a reflected sense of self, loving and validating others in order to receive love and validation from them?

The tiger is not done with his meal, and the well goes deeper still…


Reading for February 7, Mark Epstein

One Dharma Nashville

Those with a misunderstanding of selflessness tend to overvalue the idea of the “empty mind” free of thoughts….Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight.  Only the belief in the ego’s solidity is lost.  Yet this insight does not come easily.  It is far more tempting–and easier–to use meditation to withdraw from our confusion about ourselves, to dwell in the tranquil stabilization that meditation offers, and to think of this as approximating the teaching of egolessness.  But this is not what the Buddha meant by Right View.

To counter such tendencies, Nargarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, taught the doctrine of emptiness, orsunyata.  Emptiness, he understood, is not a thing in itself, but is always predicated on a belief in something.  Referring to the absence of self-sufficiency or substantiality in persons, emotions, or things, emptiness describes…

View original post 275 more words

“The Buddha Saved my Marriage”

“The Buddha Saved my Marriage”.

The Dark Year of the Soul (Part 2)

The second dream was more empowering – no tigers ripping apart dogs.  I had been sleeping soundly when my son suddenly kicked me in the head at 4:30am (we have a king-size bed, but toddlers stretch horizontally because…).  I angrily awoke, grabbed his foot, and somehow managed to throw him to the other side of the bed without waking him up.  Then I felt startled – where was this anger coming from?  I had recently come out to my wife about my doubts, and we had been carrying this stressful secret, not knowing where they would go.  I began processing all of the fears I had about feeling like I was slipping, like I was losing God, faith, church, self, and I didn’t know where the story was going.  I sunk back into a dreamy sleep.  It was a very simple dream: I was in a dark room with a spotlight on a well filled with black ink.  I leaned over the well, seeing my reflection on the oily shimmer.  A voice spoke: “Chris, you wouldn’t suffer so much if you would just enter into your depression.”  And so I jumped into the well.

I woke up that morning feeling like I had done something brave, and that I had done it for me.  I took a leap of faith into the abyss.  It was the only way to love my self.

The Dark Year of the Soul

I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post, but now that I have begun, I feel myself wanting to stop.  The darkness, the loneliness creeps in, making me wonder if it’s worthwhile to be vulnerable at this stage.  I suppose I wanted to wait until I was completely done with preaching before I posted it, for reasons that should be become obvious to you. As many of you already know, I left pastoral ministry in September of 2013. I had been doing pulpit supply every other week at a small Presbyterian USA church about an hour south of Nashville, not only to help pay the bills, but because I felt that I needed to do this to really see if I was still called to the ministry, to see if I could make peace with God and faith and church and serve other people in this capacity. Well, this past Sunday I told them that it was my last Sunday preaching, and that I had taken a job as a full-time audio video technician. I also announced this on Facebook. What concerned most people was the fact that I said it was my last time preaching “ever.” And so I want to explain why I feel that, as far as I know, I will never return to the pulpit, and will be rescinding my ordination on August 12th.

Those who know me best know that while I can put up a good academic intellectual facade, my true self comes alive when my emotional life is engaged.  And so, when I talk about my relationship with God, it was an emotional connection to something beyond myself.  The way I thought about that connection changed over time, but the feeling was what mattered to me.  I felt loved when I was alone – not many people know what that feels like.  I recall all the bus rides to and from school, leaning my forehead against the vinyl cover of the seat in front of me, letting my internal world swirl like a spiritual storm.  It was vast and beautiful in there, and God was always present to me.

What spurred my faith as a teenager was the fact that it made me feel different and unique at school.  It was also what gave me access to my youth group, a select group of peers among whom I felt like I could fit in.  It was a place I could explore this inner world with others. 

My faith gave me access to community, to tradition, to adulthood.  I was an evangelical, but one who was out to prove that you could be evangelical and still be cool.  That was always the greatest compliment I could receive from non-believers.  That I had somehow managed to not be a total asshole meant that I was an anomaly, that I was special (noticing a theme yet?). 

Faith was central to my identity.  People respected me for taking it seriously.  I truly believe this created a feedback loop that meant I could be alone with God, because of all these benefits – safety, security, identity, love, purpose, etc.  I went to work with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) to do a Discipleship Training School for 6 months in Australia.  I came home and volunteered with my church youth ministry.  I began studying philosophy and theology, but always with an eye towards holiness.  Up until this point, my faith had been on a steady growth curve since the age of 12.

And then it happened.  My home church underwent a split, and I saw a different side to the adults I had looked up to.  It was an ugly side, fueled by anxiety and suspicion.  The details don’t really matter, but it was the first time where I saw the church become unhinged.  I didn’t know what to do with this new information, because it threatened my plan.  I had decided that I would become a pastor, and was leaving for seminary in six months. 

It was at that point that I think my faith began to fall apart.  However, I managed to stave off this crisis by escaping into my head.  And there’s no better place to attempt to put faith into one’s head than in seminary.  It’s funny, because there was a woman at church who had warned me that seminary is where faith goes to die.  I shrugged this off as a pietistic anti-intellectual truism.  But she was right, in a way that betrays the fragility of belief.

Once I began seminary, I began to notice that I was not praying as much.  All the evangelical students at Princeton Seminary would complain about how our spiritual lives were drying up.  We tried to find the right churches that would give us the worship boost we craved, but mostly we were disappointed and forced into a mainline existence through field education requirements.  I ended up doing my field ed. at a PCUSA church plant, and that became a kind of default track (as one pastor joked, the reason to go Presbyterian could be summed up in one word: pension!).

As I spoke with pastors and mentors, they gave me words to describe this experience.  It was called a “dark night of the soul,” and it would pass with time.  It was part of the test of one’s faith.  And so I waited, and waited, and waited.  Meanwhile, I was successfully jumping through the hoops of ordination.  In my examinations before the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that no one was asking me about my relationship with Jesus or my spiritual life.  They wanted to know my theology, and I knew how to impress on that front.

My first call was at a small Presbyterian church in Nashville.  This church, like the other churches I had interned at, was full of loving people.  I was overjoyed that I had even found a call.  They believed in me and gave me a chance to grow as a young preacher.  They say the first year of pastoral ministry you can do no wrong, the second year you can do no right, and the third year either you or some of your parishioners will leave.  Unfortunately, when I came to my third year, both happened.  The inner void that I had denied for so long had finally caught up with me.  By this time, I had become an expert at speaking in what Eugene Peterson calls “the stained-glass voice.”  I knew how to sound pious, and I believed that if I just preached and behaved my way into faith with other people that it would take hold.  But it didn’t.  We had a wonderful three years together, and the relationships from church are still extremely meaningful to me.  The fact that so many people found me to be a helpful, healing presence only exacerbated my own sense that I was really an imposter (another feeling I was told by pastors would go away with time but never did). 

I should mention that I was in therapy since beginning my role as pastor, in order to help me process the grief of my father-in-law’s death, and to help me transition into ministry.  As I look back, my pastoral counselor wonders if the work we were doing was in some sense a catalyst for the changes that I’m describing to you now.  I believe that to be an accurate assessment.

I began to have some scary dreams in my last six months of ministry.  The first one was of letting my black lab, Yoshi, outside to go pee in the middle of the night.  I stood behind the screen door, waiting for him to come back in.  All of a sudden, a tiger appeared.  My dog froze and so did I.  The tiger lingered towards Yoshi, and stopped in front of him, and rolled over.  “Awww, he wants to play!”  And so Yoshi, excited by a new and interesting friend, began to play along.  They wrestled for a bit, and then things started to turn.  The tiger became hungry, more aggressive in its play.  It pinned Yoshi down.  Instead of nibbling on Yoshi’s ears, the tiger began to bite them off.  Pinned down, Yoshi began to whimper for help.  I couldn’t move.  Slowly the tiger picked him apart, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and woke up.  I had a migraine that day, but had to show up for a presbytery meeting.  I got to the meeting, but was in such bad shape that I had to leave.  I pulled over to the side of the road and called my wife, as if i had just witnessed a real trauma.  I didn’t know what the dream meant, but I felt like I needed to leave the church in order to get relief.  My wife promised me that I could do that, and that we would be ok.

After some counseling sessions (some with my therapist and others with dear friends late into the night), I realized that I was simultaneously playing all three roles in the dream: me the bystander, me the dog, and me the tiger.  I was watching myself fall apart.  At first I enjoyed the novelty and the play of the new, but then the reality of decay set in. 

I’ll tell you about the second dream in my next post.  Thank you for journeying with me thus far.

Book Review: “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller

Miller, Alice (2007). The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search For the True Self.

New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 1-133.

            “The Drama of the Gifted Child” is the first book that I feel has described both the blessing and curse of those who have abnormally sensitive emotional radar. The source of this “gift” lay in the history of the child who was asked to perform adult responsibilities and behaviors for his or her primary caregivers. This process is now often described in psychology as “parentification,” which suggests an imposition of the psychological needs of the parents at the cost of the needs of the child. Whether these needs were instrumental (i.e., performing physical care for a sick parent or sibling) or emotional (i.e., performing therapy for a disturbed primary care giver), the child often ends up learning to repress their own needs. Most importantly, as Miller points out, many parentified children seek out healing professions in order to continue performing their parentified role. If the genesis of this role is not understood and accepted, such that one is able to give thanks for the gift and grieve the loss of one’s childhood, the drama of the gifted child will continue to cause great unnecessary suffering into adulthood.

            It is precisely with this warning to therapists that Miller opens her book in the first chapter, entitled “How We Became Psychotherapists.” Using a psychodynamic framework, Miller believes that “we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about our unique history of our childhood” (p. 1). Her work has exposed a pattern of people who, having achieved so much in life and who appear to exert a strong confidence, actually hide feelings of “emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning” (p. 5). Once their grandiosity falters, they are then “plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame.” These patients are unable to detect where their suffering is coming from, and when asked about their childhood, they often believe that their childhood was “happy and protected.” Yet, despite strong introspection and empathy, they are cut off from accessing the emotional world of their own childhood. “Very often, they show disdain and irony, even derision and cynicism, for the child they were” (p. 6).

            Miller’s baseline for psychic health of children lies in their need for unconditional love and mirroring at young age. “The child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time,” which includes her “emotions, sensations, and her expression from the first day onward.” In moving towards the stage separation from the mother, the child must be able to accomplish individuation and autonomy. For this to be fostered, the parents often must have grown up with such needs being met. If the parents themselves are deprived, they will seek “the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously” (p. 7). No one fits this substitute position better than a child, but obviously even this attempt to fill a hole in the parent’s past is impossible. Thus, even the failure to be the messianic substitute for the parent is thus internalized by the child. They are never good enough, even though they try so hard to be good.

            In Miller’s own work with people in the helping professions, she has confronted childhood histories that include a primary caregiver (mother, father, older sibling, etc.) who “was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child’s behaving a particular way” (p. 7-8). In turn the child adapted to this need by developing a highly sensitive and intuitive response system that unconsciously created a role-reversal. Since the child became a caretaker for the parent-figure, he or she believed this role secured their parent’s love. These “parentified” children became confidantes, comforters, advisers and supporters of their parents and siblings. Miller notes that such highly attuned capacity for reading the needs of others often led these parentified children to become therapists (hence chapter one’s title: “How We Became Psychotherapists”). While a seemingly good fit for therapy, parentified children who have been gifted with such sensitivity have also been cursed with an emotional disturbance: “As long as the therapist is not aware of his repression, it can compel him to use his patients, who depend on him, to meet his unmet needs with substitutes” (p. 8).

            When the child becomes the primary-caregiver, it often means that the child’s needs for “respect, echoing, understanding, sympathy and mirroring have had to be repressed” (p.9). This has several consequences: a heightened capacity to avoid one’s own feelings (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety) as a child and as an adult, while also being dominated by the feeling-world of (m)others; a survivalist reliance upon a false ego built upon unrealistic grandiose achievement; depressive phases after an inevitable failure to achieve “love,” no matter how brilliant one’s performance; lingering feelings of self-doubt, perfectionism, and an imposter-syndrome; and a strong backlash of anger and resentment for feeling trapped inside this false self into adulthood.

            The book is entitled “The Drama of the Gifted Child” because the child has learned to attach their self-esteem to their gifts and abilities. This is because their parent(s) failed to give them unconditional love, but this truth has been hidden from them. The child is thus stuck in a constant drama of grandiose success and depressive failure.

            It is usually after the grandiose false self begins to cave that the depressed false self emerges. For Miller, depression “consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions … such as discontent, anger, rage, pain, even hunger – and, of course, enjoyment of their own bodies” (p. 46). The body is attempting to speak a truth that the false self is refusing to hear, and this is what creates depressive suffering. These repressed feelings will continue to emerge over the course of the adult’s life, often creating new depressive phases as signals of distress.

The proper mode of therapy for parentified adult-children lies in helping them experience the deep grief of a lost childhood, which becomes their own personal truth. It allows them to look back on their childhood, which they previously presumed was happy and stable, to ask the question: “Does this mean that it was not really me whom you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?” (p. 15). The purpose of such interrogations is not to literally confront one’s parents and attempt to blame them for one’s current unhappiness. Rather, the work of grieving one’s loss of childhood and finding the true feelings of the true self is a personal responsibility that leads to forgiveness and freedom from the aches of one’s past.

It goes without saying that this book is not about “gifted children” in the usual sense. Instead, it is an intensive look at the dark truth behind such giftedness, and the quiet and peculiar suffering that so many endure. It names precisely the kind of narcissistic dynamic that can derail the “gifted” psychotherapist, and because of this, I would make it required reading for therapists in training. Miller sometimes elides the distinctions between various types of abuse, and all too easily moves from talking about emotionally disturbed narcissistic mothers to physically abusive parents. Her inclusion of past psychoanalytic-biographical work of figures such as Herman Hesse can often feel like an academic interruption in an otherwise very personal book. The density of this work is most palpable for the parentified reader, perhaps due to the fact that they are being addressed as true selves for the first time.


Table of Contents:



            The Poor Rich Child

            The Lost World of Feelings

            In Search of the True Self

            The Therapist’s History

            The Golden Brain


            The Vicissitudes of the Child’s Needs

                        Healthy Development

                        The Disturbance

            The Illusion of love


                        Depression as the Reverse of Grandiosity

                        Depression as Denial of the Self

            Depressive Phases During Therapy

                        Signal Function

                        Suppression of Essential Needs

                        The Accumulation of Strong, Hidden Feelings

            The Inner Prison

            A Social Aspect of Depression

            The Legend of Narcissus


            Humiliation for the Child, Disrespect for the Weak, & Where It Goes from There

Working With Contempt in Therapy

            Damaged Self-Articulation in the Compulsion to Repeat

            Perpetuation of Contempt in Perversion and Obsessive Behavior

            “Depravity” as “Evil” in Herman Hesse’s Childhood World

            The Mother as Society’s Agent During the First Year’s of Life

            The Loneliness of the Contemptuous

            Achieving Freedom from Contempt and Respecting Life





A Theology of Thanksgiving

This is the fourth and final talk in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

1Cor. 11:23   For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (NRSV)

This morning we come to our final holiday – Thanksgiving.  To be sure, a time of turkey, gravy, canned cranberry sauce (because, no matter how wonderful your aunt’s recipe might be, it doesn’t compare with the glorious stuff that comes out of the can).  A time to give thanks to God.  Thanks for what, though?

It is a time to look back upon the truth of our humanity – a story that is full of kindness, love, gentleness, giving, friends, relatives, fun, joy.  And we usually go around the dinner table and take note of these good things.  But imagine that we also, in a strange way, look back at all the things we talked about: Christmas – being born a baby, vulnerable, tiny, fragile.  And, if there’s one thing you realize you cannot choose in life, it’s your parents!  We should be thankful that our parents and caretakers actually took care of us, even though they did it in imperfect ways at times.  By being thankful for the way we came into the world, we let go of the need to wish we had been someone else or something else.  Halloween – being born into a world of suffering, violence, and death.  Yes, in a strange way, we also come to be thankful for this world, in all its imperfection.  By being thankful for this world, right here, right now, that we live in, we cease wishing that we had been born into some different world, with better people.  The limitations of death and suffering help us not to take our bodies for granted, to accept them, and yet to feel free to cry and to mourn the losses that hit us in life.  Finally, with Good Friday and Easter, we give thanks for the death of our false selves, of the old life, the death of our superhero identities and our masks that we hide behind.  When we experience these things being crucified, it feels like death to us.  How could we possibly live without these things?  And yet, we find on the other side of this death that there is life.

This morning, the sacrament that marks thanksgiving for the life that we live in these bodies is communion.  It is the place where we choose this body that we’ve been given, and we choose this collective body, with each of us here, belonging.  I do not wish to replace you with someone else.  I do not desire to fix you.  I accept you as the person that you are, and you accept me as the person that I am.  We accept all of the problems that we bring with us, because we all have troubles, and this is okay.  You may think you left all of your problems behind at home, and that’s why you had such a wonderful time this weekend.  But no, we all brought our problems with us.  Perhaps, during the last few days, we learned to hold our problems differently, carry them differently, see them differently.  Our problems are there, but they do not define us.  Our problems, our drama, our battles, our striving to be better, to get attention, these things followed us here.  But they are not our true selves.

Let us now enter into new life together one last time while we are together here, though this is just the beginning for some of us.

A Theology of Easter

This is the third talk in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Mark 15:25   It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.  26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”  27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.  29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,  30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”  31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Mark 15:33   When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (NRSV)

So we talked about Christmas, the day where God so loves all of humanity that God proves it by becoming one with us in Jesus, the true human being.  God joins us in a Halloween world, a world that is unsafe and full of horrors.  Now we come to Good Friday and Easter, where the full horror of the world actually leads to the one thing we cannot conquer and that we fear: death.

Not only does God take the risk of living in an unsafe world, but God actually suffers and dies.  The fears and horrors that we talked about, they aren’t just a fantasy, not just something we dress up as or create scary movies about – they are real.  Jesus is betrayed by a friend, Jesus is abandoned by his followers, Jesus is whipped and beaten, humiliated in public.  But perhaps the most utterly horrifying thing happens to Jesus – he is abandoned by God.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is sometimes called the Cry of Dereliction.  It has the same tone as the cry of Psalm 88 that we read earlier.  Some have gone as far to say that, on the cross, Jesus becomes an atheist, that God becomes an atheist.  I’m not sure I would go that far, because Jesus is still speaking to God, asking “Why?”  Nonetheless, it seems as though Jesus is, in a very human way, let down by God.  Jesus told God he didn’t want to do this in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he said “Not my will but yours be done.”  Still, Jesus asks “why?”  Where is God?

Just as the Psalmist experiences that sense of being abandoned by God, and is free to feel it, and to talk about it, so it seems that Jesus is free to feel abandoned by God, and to question God: “Why?”

That is a question that never really gets answered, in the same way that our suffering really never has an answer to “why?”  Why does Jesus die?  What does God abandon him?  I think it’s because the only way one can live a truly human life is to lose that which is most precious to us.  This is the tragic nature of what being human is.  The thing that we think will not fail us, that will always keep us safe and secure – sooner or later we find out that we’re not as safe and secure as we thought.  I wonder if that’s what Jesus felt.

What I find fascinating about this story is what happens immediately after Jesus dies.  What happens to the curtain in the temple?

37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

What was the temple?  The temple was the place where God was the supposed to reside, in the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain.  Only the priests could go back there.  Now, when Jesus dies, the temple curtain is torn.  And what is behind that curtain?  Nothing.

And this reveals the great paradox of Christian faith: GODISNOWHERE

This can be read two ways: God is nowhere.  Or God is now here.

God is both greater than we could ever imagine, and less than we could ever imagine.  God is both that which is too much for us to comprehend, like standing up close to a infinitely large LED TV.  And God is absent, like the cold vacuum of space.

And Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is an invitation for us to live a truly human life.  Do you want to be saved from your sins?  Too bad.  You are a sinner.  The only thing Jesus seems to be interested in is whether or not we own it.  So own it, own your humanity, and stop waiting for someone else, even God, to come fix you.  People have this idea that Christianity and religion is all about trying to find something out there that will finally satisfy.  The Gospel is that there’s nothing out there that can fill you, that can fix you.  There’s no job, spouse, no church, no God behind the curtain waiting for you to say the secret password.  You’re already enough as you are.

Guess what Jesus does after he resurrects from the dead?  The same stuff he was doing before.  Eating, drinking, loving, living.  And he tells us disciples to go and do likewise, to be good news.  Be enough, and be at peace.  When you come to the point where you are born again, such that you love yourself enough to be born again as the person that you already are, when you love yourself as much as God loves you, then you will experience resurrection, you will begin to experience new life and new creation.

And this is not just your own experience, but you will become resurrection for others, because you are already enough for yourself.  And that means you have an excess amount of love and energy to give to others.  Jesus teaches us to love others as we love ourselves, but that means that you have to love yourself first.  And there are too many people out there, including me, who have to pretend that we’re loving and caring and nice just to get attention.  The problem is, we know it’s pretend, that it’s not genuine, and we aren’t all that satisfied with the attention that we get.  The stuff out there will never be enough, including the God out there.  What we need to learn is that what’s in here is already enough.  It’s good, in all of its tiny-baby-needy-fragile-vulnerable way, it’s all good.

Now, what I have just said is probably very different from how most of you have heard the cross and resurrection spoken of.  You’re probably used to hearing about the cross and resurrection with Jesus as a superhero who conquers death, and that if we believe this then we get to go to heaven.  The problem is that the New Testament doesn’t talk about resurrection as this reward for believing the right things.  The resurrection is a way of life – it is new life.  This is why Paul talks about the body of Christ, because the body of Christ is the resurrected Jesus in the world.  And when start by knowing who we really are as children of God who are loved for who we are, and when we do the things that Jesus spoke of: loving the poor and the oppressed, loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us – when we do these things, that’s when we really show that we believe the resurrection.  But when we don’t do these things, even though we might say we believe in the resurrection on a Sunday morning, we actually deny the resurrection.

The New Testament teaches us that if we really want to receive new life, then we must pass through crucifixion first.  We must lose.  We must die.  We must change.  We must suffer.  This is the only way.  Anyone who promises otherwise is speaking a lie.  The Good News is that, in retrospect, when we receive new life, we realize that the things we were holding onto – our masks, our superhero identities, our money, our talent, our ideas about God, our possessions, our relationships – all these things pail in comparison to the God who dwells within us.

My hope and prayer is that you and I will be the body of Christ, and that we will pass through our crucifixions together, that we will help each other let go of the old life, and pass into the new.

A Theology of Halloween

This talk is the second in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Last night we talked about Christmas – the holiday that celebrates God’s love of our humanity – all of it, warts and all.  And so the question is: if God can come down and be one of us and love us, will we also love ourselves this way?

This morning, I want to talk about Halloween.  Well, actually I guess I’d prefer not to talk about it.  You see, my parents came up with the worst costume idea ever.  They took a giant black trash bag, cut holes for arms and legs, and while I wore said trash bag, they proceeded to stuff it with leaves.  Then they taped rakes to my arms.  And they would hide behind a bush while I waddled up to the porch.  And when I say “waddled,” I’m talkin’ about the way a kid waddles when they know they’ve got somethin’ in their diaper.  And then I’d have to ring the door bell and say, “Trick or treat, I’m Leaf-man!”  Worst superhero ever.  At least attach leafblowers to my arms.  But no, just those cheap plastic rakes with broken… teeth, or whatever you call them.  They were on sale at Walmart.  The rakes, not the outfit.  No retailer would ever consider selling such a horrible outfit.  So yeah, from now on, you can call me Chris, Pastor Chris, or Leafman.

Why do we celebrate Halloween?  We dress up, pretend to be things we’re not.  Some of us actually do dress up like superheroes, and that’s all good and fun.  But what interests me about this time is the fact that we dress up as the things that scare us, that frighten us.  We dress as our fears and nightmares.  Even though God loves us, and even if we love ourselves, there are some pretty scary things out there, and as we grow up, we begin to learn about them as we grow older.  We learn that there are people who walk into schools and shoot kids for no reason other than pure hatred, or who bomb buildings to create a sense of terror.  We learn that there are natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis.  We learn that there are car accidents, diseases that can’t be cured.  And we learn that some people just decide to pick on us, to make our lives miserable because they have nothing better to do.  In other words, we learn that, indeed, the world that we are born into, and the world that Jesus is born into, is not safe.

When Jesus comes into the world, as a baby, as a young boy, and as a man, the horrors of this world begin to appear.  Jesus, as a baby, escapes death as the first-born male while other children are slaughtered by Herod.  Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert.  Jesus comes across demon-possessed people.  And we know the bloody and horrifying end he will meet with on the cross. 

Sometimes we talk about this realization of the horrors of this world as a “loss of innocence.”  You and I, when we were little kids, used to be innocent and naïve.  We just played and had a good time, and we did so because we thought we were safe.  Our parents probably have done as good a job as possible to make sure of that.  But word gets out.  And sometimes, horror comes knocking on our front door. 

When I was 12, my uncle called our house one last time.  He was an unemployed alcoholic who lived in Texas.  I remember building a computer with him, and that he was actually a very kind and gentle person.  But he suffered.  He called our house over and over, trying to talk to my mother.  And she was crying, telling him that he needed to seek help.  He never did.  A month later, the police called to say that he had overdosed on his drugs, combined with all the alcohol he’d been drinking.  The man who had just spent Christmas with me, building that computer, was gone.

This was the first time I began to question whether God even exists.  How could God allow such a thing to happen?  Why would God allow my uncle, who was also born as a little baby with needs (just like Jesus), to die in such a terrible way?  Why didn’t God answer his prayers and fix things?

What we find out in the Bible is that the world is full of monsters, and that sometimes we even have a little monster in us too.  One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 88, describes just this feeling.  It’s a Psalm of lament, where the author allows himself to cry over the horrors of this world.

Psa. 88:0   

1          O LORD, God of my salvation,

                        when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2          let my prayer come before you;

                        incline your ear to my cry.

Psa. 88:3            For my soul is full of troubles,

                        and my life draws near to Sheol.

4          I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

                        I am like those who have no help,

5          like those forsaken among the dead,

                        like the slain that lie in the grave,

            like those whom you remember no more,

                        for they are cut off from your hand.

6          You have put me in the depths of the Pit,

                        in the regions dark and deep.

7          Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

                        and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Psa. 88:8            You have caused my companions to shun me;

                        you have made me a thing of horror to them.

            I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9                      my eye grows dim through sorrow.

            Every day I call on you, O LORD;

                        I spread out my hands to you.

10        Do you work wonders for the dead?

                        Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah

11        Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,

                        or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12        Are your wonders known in the darkness,

                        or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

Psa. 88:13          But I, O LORD, cry out to you;

                        in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14        O LORD, why do you cast me off?

                        Why do you hide your face from me?

15        Wretched and close to death from my youth up,

                        I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16        Your wrath has swept over me;

                        your dread assaults destroy me.

17        They surround me like a flood all day long;

                        from all sides they close in on me.

18        You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

                        my companions are in darkness. (NRSV)

The author makes no bones about this.  God is responsible for this world.  So why on earth would God create a world in which we could get hurt?  If you were God, would you do that?  And remember, God not only creates this world, but enters into it too! 

There is nothing about the Christian faith that magically takes away the things that threaten our lives.  I was talking to one guy who said he had been given these superpowers from God through prayer.  I asked him what he could do, and he said “When that lightbulb goes out, I don’t have to change it.  I just speak to it, and it turns on!  That’s the power of God!”  Then, he told me that there was a tornado heading towards his house.  And he spoke to the tornado, and it moved away.  What I didn’t ask him, but really wanted to ask him, was whether or not he made sure the tornado didn’t veer in the direction of someone else’s house.   Right?  I mean, no matter how many miraculous stories we all hear about survival, and it’s always tempting to say that “well I survived, so God must have some sort of special plan for me.”  WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER POOR FOLKS WHO JUST HAD THEIR HOUSE KNOCKED DOWN, BURNED DOWN, FLOODED OUT?  WHERE’S THE SPECIAL PLAN IN THAT? 

Just a note of caution: if your friend is suffering from something, an illness or some accident, don’t ever say anything like “Don’t worry, it’s all part of God’s plan.”

This world is not safe.  God does not give us special protection.  We just happen to live in a part of the world that is relatively safer than the other parts.  But we could have just as easily been born in Syria, and then we’d really be in a pickle. 

The other part of Halloween lies in recognizing that we are not just afraid of things out there, but we learn to become afraid of ourselves.  We don’t like being vulnerable in such an unsafe world, and so we put on masks.  We decide to become little superheroes, each with our own superpowers, because we want to protect ourselves.  The problem is, once you do that, you lose yourself.  People begin to think you ARE the superhero.  They mistake you for something you’re really not.  And then you feel trapped.  Maybe people think you’re nothing but the computer nerd, or the musician, or the athlete, or artist, or the film-maker, or maybe you’re just day-dreaming about what persona other people would like the most. 

So I have two questions for you to talk about in your groups:

1.)   Does it bother you that God allows terrible things to happen?

2.)   What mask do you hide behind to protect yourself?

A Theology of Christmas

Why do we celebrate Christmas?  The birth of Jesus.

The birth. The beginning of life.  Which means Jesus was born as a human being … specifically, as a baby.

Luke 2:1    In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (NRSV)

So he didn’t come out as a man, but as a baby.  Now, how would you describe a baby?  What is a baby?  “A tiny fragile human being.  Can’t talk.  Can’t feed itself.”

What do you feel when you’re around babies?  How do they make you feel when you hold them?  What goes through your mind?  Maybe some of you remember holding a little brother or sister for the first time.

Now, what do you remember about being a baby?  Nothing probably.  The thing is, as a baby, you can’t remember anything.  Most of you probably have little to no memory of what happened to you before you were four years old.  That’s because your brain is changing so rapidly, learning all these new things like how to walk and how to talk that memory doesn’t really happen till later.

All of us were babies at some point.  We were tiny, fragile, breakable, crying, wailing, rash covered poopy little things.  And somebody had to help us out, from the moment we were born.  We could not help ourselves.

God could not help God’s self, because God was a baby.

What does that say about God?  To me, it says that we need to think about God differently.  I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, God was always pictured as this old man with a gray beard, kind of like Gandalf.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Gandalf.  He hugs the hobbits, takes care of them.  Maybe you have a grandpa like that, and that’s how you’ve known God to be.  But I also picture this loving God as also extremely powerful – he can’t get hurt.

But now that you’re getting older, I want you to imagine God is something tiny, just like you were.  Tiny, fragile, needy, vulnerable.  Jesus was vulnerable.  God was vulnerable.  God can get hurt.  God is born into the world and cannot speak, cannot eat, cannot do anything for himself.  God needs Mary and Joseph.  God needs food, water, clothing, shelter.  God needs to be loved.  And the risky thing is that, in this world, God might not get it!

Now let me ask you a question – do these needs ever go away when you get older?  Do you stop needing help?  Do you stop needing food, water, clothing, shelter, and love?  No.  You might learn how to better get these things, but you still might not get them.  You might get hurt.  That’s what this world is like.

And God decided to come live in it anyway.  God could have been all-powerful, but God decided to take the risk of getting hurt, of being vulnerable.

Which begs the question: did God become Superman?  No.  Did God become Batman?  No.  God has no superpowers, like Superman does.  And God has no money to build cool gadgets, like Batman does.  God comes down as a poor Palestinian Jewish boy, who will learn how to be a carpenter.  Nothing special really.

Now, I want you to think about what you would do if you were God, and you could be in control of what you would be born as.  Who would you become?  Would you be Batman or Catwoman?  Would you be Superman or Superwoman?

But, like all superheroes, the truth is that there’s someone behind the mask.  Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne – these people were babies once too.  Human beings.  And what’s so fascinating about Jesus is that he is not a superhero.  There is no mask.  There is simply a vulnerable human being.  Maybe that’s what sets him apart.  God is born as a human being, and that means as a baby.  Is a baby good-looking?  Does a baby have superpowers?  Does a baby get all the girls or all the boys (ok, yes, they are cute and get lots of attention).  Does a baby have anything to offer the world?  No.  No wisdom, no skills, nothing.  Just pure need, and the fear of not getting that need met.

God became that baby, that part of us that is just pure need, which means God loved that part of us, just as God loved that part of himself.

Which leads me to ask you: if you were God, would choose to come down as… you?  No mask, no superpowers, no superwealth to create lots of amazing gadgets.  Just… you.  Baby you, toddler you, little elementary school you, middle school you, high school you.

As some of you know, the Gospel of John talks about being “born again.”   What Jesus is talking about is this: are you willing to believe that God loves who you are, right here, right now, all of you: your bad memories, your bad dreams, your warts, scabs, pimples, your fears, needs, failures, crimes, pains, secrets, addictions, hurts, traumas, as well as all of your body-size, hair color, physical and mental disabilities, your lack of possessions, talent, money?  Do you believe this so much that you would be willing to love yourself as the person that you are, such that, if you were God, and you could choose to be born, you would do it all again to become the person that you are?

I admit – I spend most of my time wishing that I could be someone else.  Someone better, stronger, faster.  And I envy people who are better, stronger, faster, more beautiful than I am.  I wish I had abs like in 300, and I wish I could read 600 words a minute.  But I don’t.  What I really wish is that I could be loved for who I am.

And what Christmas is all about is that God says “yes.”  Yes to our humanity, to our fragility, to our vulnerability, to our imperfection.  The question is: will you say it to yourself, as the person that you are?

My hope is that, during this weekend, you will be loved and cared for by others, by those you know really well, those you kind of know, and those who are complete strangers.  I also hope you will show that love and care to others.  But the adventure of a lifetime all comes back to this: would you love yourself so much that you’d be willing to be yourself all over again?

Because everything that you are, everything that you feel, everything that you think, everything that you say and don’t say – it all belongs.  In the same way that God came to live among us in the flesh through Jesus, God says yes to your body, to your mind, to your heart, to your soul, and says “I already live in you.  The question is: will you live in you?”

My hope and my prayer is that we will all live as the people that we already are – this weekend, and as we go home.