Have You Ever Been “Chastened”?

God’s chastening is not God’s way of getting even: God got even at the cross . . . the chastening isn’t God getting even; it is preparing that person for something better, more valuable and worthwhile. God chastens us ‘for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness’ (Heb. 12: 10). Often God chastens the very one who, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t apparently need it or deserve it.

R. T. Kendall, God Meant it for Good, 68.

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Is Your Pastor a Phony?

Anne Tyler, in her novel Morgan’s Passing, told the story of a middle-aged Baltimore man who passed through people’s lives with astonishing aplomb and expertise in assuming roles and gratifying expectations.

The novel opens with Morgan watching a puppet show on a church lawn on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes into the show, a young man comes from behind the puppet stage and asks, “Is there a doctor here?” After thirty or forty seconds with no response from the audience, Morgan stands up, slowly and deliberately approaches the young man, and asks, “What is the trouble?” The puppeteer’s pregnant wife is in labor; a birth seems imminent. Morgan puts the young couple in the back of his station wagon and sets off for Johns Hopkins Hospital. Halfway there the husband says, “The baby is coming!”

Morgan, calm and self-assured, pulls to the curb, sends the about-to-be father to the corner to buy a Sunday paper as a substitute for towels and bed sheets, and delivers the baby. He then drives to the emergency room of the hospital, sees the mother and baby safely to a stretcher, and disappears. After the excitement dies down, the couple asks for Dr. Morgan to thank him. But no one has ever heard of a Dr. Morgan. They are puzzled-and frustrated that they can’t express their gratitude.

Several months later they are pushing their baby in a stroller and see Morgan walking on the other side of the street. They run over and greet him, showing him the healthy baby that he brought into the world. They tell him how hard they had looked for him, and of the hospital’s bureaucratic incompetence in tracking him down. In an unaccustomed gush of honesty, he admits to them that he is not really a doctor. In fact, he runs a hardware store. But they needed a doctor, and being a doctor in those circumstances was not all that difficult.

It is an image thing, he tells them: You discern what people expect and fit into it. You can get by with it in all the honored professions. He has been doing this all his life, impersonating doctors, lawyers, pastors, counselors as occasions present themselves.

Then he confides, “You know, I would never pretend to be a plumber or impersonate a butcher–they would find me out in twenty seconds.”

Morgan knew something that most pastors catch on to early in their work: the image aspects of pastoring, the parts that require meeting people’s expectations, can be faked. We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor. The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can’t get by with it within ourselves.

At least, not all of us can. Some of us . . . feel awful. No level of success seems to be insurance against an eruption of angst in the middle of our applauded performance.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 130-131.

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Some Reflections on Attachment

Attachment: Attachment is the foundational connectedness and emotional bond that develops between people. Attachment starts with a mother and child relationship and characterizes all lasting ties between people.

Attachment Styles: There are two attachment styles, secure and insecure. A secure attachment is characterized by trust and autonomy. The mother’s response time to her child is quick, predictable, and sensitive. Insecure attachment styles can be differentiated into three separate patterns of dysfunction that typically originate in the first attachment between a child and its primary caretaker (typically the mother), where the caretaker was unable to provide the basis of a secure attachment. The insecure styles are distracted, dismissive and disorganized. This insecurity in early attachment relationships develops, grows, and eventually interferes with a person’s ability to regulate emotionally and adjust both socially and psychologically.

The distracted attachment pattern is the result of inconsistent availability of the mother to care for the child. This inconsistency results in the child being anxious about and preoccupied with the times when the mother is actually available. The child keeps a watchful eye searching for times when mom will show up and take care of him/her. Each time the mother does respond, the child’s hope is renewed. However, since the mother’s response is inconsistent, the child’s hopes are dashed more often than not. This intermittent response pattern keeps the child in a distracted state. In adults, this pattern is often referred to as a preoccupied attachment style.

The dismissive attachment pattern is the result of the complete disengagement of the mother. The mother is distant and consistently unavailable to the child. The unavailability results in the child cutting of from the mother and reciprocating emotional distance. The child believes that his/her needs will never be met, which results in a dismissive pattern that serves as the ultimate defensive mechanism to protect oneself from further attachment pain. In children, this pattern is often referred to as avoidant attachment style.

The disorganized attachment pattern is the result of the mother’s extreme response to the child’s needs. The mother is erratic and frightening to the child. The child’s reaction is often characterized by anger, depression, and passivity.

Attachment pain: Attachment pain is the result of separation from or the loss of someone to whom we are attached. Divorce, death, separation and abandonment are some sources of attachment pain. Lonely, homesick, rejected and heartbroken are forms of attachment pain. Attachment pain can also be the result of non-secure attachment. When experienced early in life, prior to twelve years of age, attachment pain can cause the brain to be rewired in ways that keeps us from conscious awareness of attachment pain. While the pain continues to have a powerful effect on our lives, we may be truthfully unaware of its existence. Attachment pain . . . intensifies the effects of all unpleasant emotions and experiences.

E. James Wilder, The Joy Starts Here, 231-232.

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When Spiritual Discernment Misfires

I have observed that godly, wise, Spirit-filled Christians often have sharp disagreements about how to become godly, wise, and Spirit-filled! The issue of discernment is a case in point. Sometimes when Christians say that they have “the gift of discernment” what is actually the case is that they have a learned, intuitive ability to detect genuineness from falsehood. Or, they have acquired a capacity to make sound and wise decisions. Understood accordingly and strictly in this sense, I wouldn’t limit this “gift of discernment” to Spirit-guided Christians. It seems that many unbelievers also have this ability. It’s that gut-level ability to sense that something is genuine, or that something is not quite right. It’s a capacity to assess something accurately based on a limited degree of experience. In other words, spontaneous decisions can be often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones. Malcolm Gladwell documents this ability in his now-famous Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Even though spiritual discernment and intuitive capacity have shared similarities, they can and should be distinguished. Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians is pertinent in this connection: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, people are not able to see the relevance and value of spiritual things to their lives. Or, to put it another way, “there are depths and dimensions to life in the Spirit which the person who lives on an entirely human level . . . simply cannot fathom” (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 274).

Be all that as it may–and so much more could be said, I appreciate the well-nuanced definition of biblical discernment offered by Thomas Dubay:

“[Discernment] includes both detecting the origin of our inclinations, desires, inspirations and insights and evaluating the signs by which one might know if a given course of action or teaching seems to be of God or not. The two meanings are closely intertwined” (Authenticity, 42)

Christians who are truly discerning recognize that they may be wrong at times. More often than not, Christians can make judgments that make intuitive sense, but don’t take into consideration all available evidence.

Why do some Christians make decisions that seem Spirit-led and intuitively right, but turn out to be wrong when all available evidence comes to light? I amplify what Dubay has already said,

  • Haste: We are too lazy to study a matter carefully, so we make a decision anyway.
  • Vanity: In our pride we don’t want to admit ignorance, so we make a decision anyway.
  • Preferences: We like a position before investigating it first.
  • Emotional Pressure: Fear, anger, peace, joy, sadness, disgust, shame, or hopeless despair drive our decisions more than a careful consideration of all available input.
  • Self-deception: Our critical thinking process has become short-circuited because we have gotten used to lying to ourselves.
  • Lack of Communal Input: “Even St. Paul sought the approval of ‘the leading men’ in Jerusalem for the mission he received directly from the risen Jesus (Gal. 2:2, 6, 10). The New Testament gives no comfort to visionaries who deem themselves exempt from any structural approval” (Authenticity, 70).
  • Lack of Love: Tainted  and defective motives induce intellectual darkness. “The more one loves, the more he sees ultimate reality. Love puts one into contact with God and with men as nothing else does. The person who loves fully sees deeply” (Authenticity, 38).

I believe that there is a special gift that God bestows to certain Christians. This endowment seems to consist of a mysterious blend of Spirit-led insight, humble intuition, prayerful investigation, and communal authentication. As Jack Levison suggests, spiritually-discerning people are those whom the Holy Spirit fills, “because they are already prepared, well-studied, alert. With this insight . . . we return to the worlds of Joseph, Bezalel, Daniel, Simeon, and Anna–whose ardor and arduous labor led to sparkling inspired moments in the history of an ancient faith tradition (Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, 184).

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What Do Churches Want from Their Pastors?

We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant.

We believe that the invisible is more important than the visible at any one single moment and in any single event that we choose to examine. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life.

We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, adults who once aired their doubts and sang their praises in church–and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers — or at best catch only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s Word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves; our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to give us help: be our pastor, a minister of Word and sacrament in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with Word and sacrament in all the different parts and stages of our lives — in our work and play, with out children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: Word and sacrament.

One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind is as tricky as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.

There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vow of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.

There are many other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the foundational realities with which we are dealing — God, kingdom, gospel — we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 137-139.

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The Awful Voice of God’s Thunder

I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder-storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunder-storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural for me to sing, or chant forth my meditations; or to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.

Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative in Letters and Personal Writings, Vol. 6:794.

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Some Reflections on Trauma

Trauma is damage caused by an impactful event that negatively alters our identity, integrity, or function. While trauma has traditionally been defined by the size of an event needed to damage an average person, we define trauma as the damage done when the impact of an event exceeds a person’s capacity at that moment. Two type of events can exceed our capacity; the first is depriving us of something we and this always causes damage. The second type is events no one ever needs. These bad things that happen to us may or may not cause damage depending on our capacity at the time and resources immediately following the event.

Type A trauma: The absence of necessary good things. Type A trauma is often referred to as “neglect” but the absence of the basic necessities in our lives produces traumatic effects of its own. Type A trauma may include malnutrition, abandonment, insecure bonds and a lack of joy in the home.

Type B trauma: Bad things that happen to us that exceed our capacity. Because we lack the necessary emotional and relational resources, a Type B trauma remains incompletely processed in a way that decreases who we are relationally and damages part of our identity.

What makes something a trauma? The essence of trauma is that it either impairs the development of our relational identity or removes an aspect of our experience from our relational reality. Trauma means that some part of our experience is no longer being processed (or has not finished being processed) in a relational way. For this traumatized aspect of our experience we feel isolated from the loving care of others.

What resolves a trauma? Trauma is resolved by raising our capacity as individual or a group so that we can process the traumatic experience in a relational way. In the case of Type A trauma this means that the missing necessary ingredient is now being provided.

E. James Wilder, Edward M Khouri, Chris M. Coursey, Sheila D. Sutton, Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone, 245.

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How Spiritual Leaders Can be Masters of Fakery – Pt. 2

The pastor whose story I just told had a great deal of information about God. He also seemed to know lots of things about himself. But this knowledge was all objective, not personal. It was, therefore, relatively useless to him.

He told me, for example, that he knew God is forgiving. But he had never really experienced this forgiveness, at least not in relation to any significant failure. It would be more accurate to say that he believed God is forgiving but did not know this as an experiential truth. Living the lie of his pretend self, he had always taken safe, inconsequential sins to God for forgiveness, never daring to expose the reality of his inner world to God. To do so would have required that he face this reality himself. That he had never been prepared to do.

He told me that his enemy was sloth–spiritual laziness. He said he had often asked God to forgive him for not working harder for the kingdom. But confession of such a sin was nothing more than a distraction. It kept his focus (and, perhaps he hoped, God’s focus) off the deeper things about himself that were so profoundly disordered.

He also told me that he knew that God is love. But again, this was a belief not an experience. To truly know love, we must receive it in an undefended state–in the vulnerability of a “just as I am” encounter. This man had never been able to allow himself this degree of vulnerability with anyone–not his wife, nor his children, nor his closest friends, and certainly not God.

Not surprisingly, then, his knowledge of himself was equally superficial. Listening to the things he told me about his life was like reading a throwaway paperback novel or watching a B-grade movie. The role he was playing lacked depth and reality. It was two-dimensional. As he told me about himself he was describing someone he had been watching from a distance. The knowledge he had of this person was objective and remote. It had, therefore, no transformational value. It was simply his pitiful attempt to give flesh-and-bones reality to the falsity of his pretend self. The self he sought to project to the world was an illusion. 

Even after his crisis, this man had enormous difficulty being honest. His longstanding, deeply ingrained tendency to present a pretend, idealized self survived the dissolution of both his ministry and his marriage. It wasn’t so much that he told lies as that he lived them. This is the tragedy of the false self. But unfortunately, this man did not have a monopoly on falsity. It is a part of all of us, to one degree or another.

Truly transformational knowledge is always personal, never merely objective. It involves knowing of, not merely knowing about. And it is always relational. It grows out of a relationship to the object that is known–whether this is God or one’s self. 

Objective knowing can occur in relation to anything that we examine at a distance. It is knowing that is independent of us. For example, you may know that the earth orbits around the sun or that Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 without direct personal experience of either, provided you are willing to accept the testimony of others. This is how it is with much of what we believe.

Personal knowing, on the other hand, is based on experience. It is therefore subjective. I know that my wife loves me because of my experience of her. While I can describe her love to someone else, I cannot prove it. I cannot make it objective. Yet this does not detract from the validity of my knowing.

Because person knowing is based on experience, it requires that we be open to the experience. Knowing God’s love demands that we receive God’s love–experientially, not simply as a theory. Personal knowledge is never simply a matter of the head. Because it is rooted in experience, it is grounded in deep places in our being. The things we know from experience we know beyond belief. Such knowing is not incompatible with belief, but it is not dependent upon it.

I do not merely believe that my wife loves me. I know she loves me. And as arrogant as it may sound, I can say that I do not merely believe in God, I know God–certainly not exhaustively, but nonetheless genuinely.

People who have never developed a deep personal knowing of God will be limited in the depth of their personal knowing of themselves. Failing to know God, they will be unable to know themselves, as God is the only context in which their being makes sense. Similarly, people who are afraid to look deeply at themselves will of course be equally afraid to look deeply at God. For such persons, ideas about God provide a substitute for direct experience of God.

Knowing God and knowing self are therefore interdependent. Neither can proceed very far without the other. Paradoxically, we come to know God best not by looking at God exclusively, but by looking at God and then looking at ourselves–then looking at God, and then again looking at ourselves. This is also the way we best come to know ourselves. Both God and self are most fully known in relationship to each other.

David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, 23-26.

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How Spiritual Leaders Can be Masters of Fakery – Pt. 1

2996132444_0d30b87dc3_oLeaving the self out of Christian spirituality results in a spirituality that is not well grounded in experience. It is, therefore, not well grounded in reality. Focusing on God while failing to know ourselves deeply may produce an external form of piety, but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality. This is dangerous to the soul of anyone–and in spiritual leadership it can also be disastrous for those they lead. 

Consider the way a lack of self-knowledge affected the life of a well-known pastor and his congregation. No one would have doubted this man’s knowing of God–at least before his very public downfall. He had built a very successful ministry around his preaching, and there was no reason to suspect that he did not personally know the truths he publicly proclaimed. Nor was there any obvious reason to question his knowing of himself. Anyone who thought about the matter would probably have judged his self-understanding to be deep. His sermons often included significant self-disclosure, and he seemed to know how to be vulnerable before God.

But as for many us, all of that was more appearance than reality. The self this pastor showed to the world was a public self he had crafted with great care–a false self of his own creation. Between this public self and his true experience lay an enormous chasm. Both that chasm and his inner experience lay largely outside his awareness. 

Suddenly the gap between his inner reality and external appearance was exposed. Things that he did not know or accept about himself welled up within him and shattered the illusion his life represented. Things that he did not know or accept about himself welled up within him and shattered the illusion his life represented. Lust led to sexual involvement with a woman he was counseling, just as greed had earlier led to misuse of church funds. As these things became public, the lie that was his life imploded. It was a lie he had lived before his family, closest friends, congregation, God and himself. It was a lie that grew  from the soil of self-ignorance. 

There is no need to identify this man, nor even to give him a fictitious name. His story is all too familiar. He reminds us of Jesus’  teaching about the dangers of the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)–both easily falling into a pit of pain and despair. Just how serious is this? According to Jesus, it is better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone about your neck than to cause one person to stumble in such a manner (Matthew 18:6). This pastor, and many others like him, have caused not just one but thousands to stumble and left them with devastating wounds. 

This man was not short on knowledge about either himself or God. But none of it did him any good. None of it was worthy of being called transformational knowing.

Not all knowledge transforms. Some merely puffs up like an overfilled balloon. And you know what happens to overfilled balloons!

Actor and filmmaker Woody Allen often speaks publicly of his decades of psychoanalysis–three or four sessions per week on a couch, saying whatever came into his mind, allowing his analyst’s periodic interpretations of the meaning of these free associations to guide his exploration. However, there is little evidence that Allen’s self-knowledge has brought him freedom or psychological health. In fact, making his continuing neurotic struggles the hallmark of his public character, he often focuses his sardonic humor on the limits of self-understanding as a means of change.

Self-knowledge that is pursued apart from knowing our identity in relationship to God easily leads to self-inflation. This is the puffed-up grandiose self Paul warns about (1 Corinthians 8:1)–an arrogance to which we are vulnerable when knowledge is valued more than love. It can also lead to self-preoccupation. Unless we spend as much time looking at God as we spend looking at our self, our knowing of ourself will simply draw us further and further into an abyss of self-fixation. 

But it is also quite possible to be stuffed with knowledge about God that does nothing to help us genuinely know either God or self. Having information about God is more transformational than having information about love. Theories and ideas about God can sit in sturdy storage canisters in our mind and do absolutely no good. If you doubt this, recall Jesus’ harsh words for the religious leaders of his day who knew God’s law but did not know God’s heart.

David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, 20-23.

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