Thomas Merton on loving others: loving Christ in them

Standard

love-othersOne of the hardest things for us to do is to love. It’s hard sometimes as leaders to love the people we are leading, because we inevitably encounter struggles with them, backlash against our leadership, anxiety and vacillation, criticism, and so on. It’s hard for people in organizations to love their leaders, because they inevitably experience disappointment and disillusionment with us, because they come to see our weaknesses, character flaws, and the mistakes we make. It’s hard for those of us in spiritual communities to love those outside our bubble, those different from us, because we see them as “other”, as flawed, and maybe even as a threat.

The Bible, and especially New Testament authors like Paul and John, challenge us over and over to love. Jesus offers the thrilling insight that when we do things for others (for “the least of these”), we do it for him. He doesn’t say that doing things for others is “sort of like” doing it for him. There is a sense in which doing things to/for others is actually doing them to/for Christ. Thomas Merton talks about this, and I’m going to quote him at length, because it’s so helpful:

“We have to resolutely put away our attachment to natural appearance and our habit of judging according to the outward face of things. I must learn that my fellow man, just as he is, whether he is my friend or my enemy, my brother or a stranger from the other side of the world, whether he be wise of foolish, no matter what my be his limitations, ‘is Christ.’ …

“Any prisoner, any starving man, any sick or dying man, any sinner, any man whatever, is to be regarded as Christ–this is the formal command of the Savior Himself. This doctrine is far too simple to satisfy many modern Christians, and undoubtedly many will remain very uneasy with it, tormented by the difficulty that perhaps after all, this particular neighbor is a bad man, and therefore cannot be Christ.

“The solution of this difficulty is to unify oneself with the Spirit of Christ, to start thinking and loving as a Christian, and to stop being a hairsplitting pharisee. Our faith is not supposed …to assess the state of our neighbor’s conscience. It is the needle by which we draw the thread of charity through our neighbor’s soul and our own soul and sew ourselves together in one Christ. Our faith is given us not to see whether or not our neighbor is Christ, but to recognize Christ in him and to help our love make both him and ourselves more fully Christ. …

“Corrupt forms of love wait for the neighbor to ‘become a worthy object of love’ before actually loving him. This is not the way of Christ. Since Christ Himself loved us when we were by no means worthy of love and still loves us with all our unworthiness, our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. …

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved–if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved–he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”

– Thomas Merton

More spiritual doesn’t always mean more peaceful

Standard

In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.

But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world? “Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.

One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.

As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.

Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:

“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.

“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”

The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.

In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”

This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.

Leaders Don’t Have to be Martyrs

Standard

3059400-poster-p-1-your-most-productive-selfsuffering-from-professional-envy-heres-how-to-turn-it-aroundLeadership is hard, but we make it harder by our own missteps. Leadership is challenging, but we make things worse when we don’t honor the limits of our bodies and souls. Leadership involves making hard choices, and dealing with conflict, but we make things worse if we don’t practice self-care. Instead we wind up fatigued, reactive, short-tempered, and feeling victimized by our role.

Just because we are leaders doesn’t mean we have to be martyrs.

Leadership is hard enough … let’s not make it harder. Let’s not glorify suffering, and delude ourselves into thinking there is spiritual merit in overwork. Jesus withdrew from the crowds when he needed to, and arranged his ministry in phases of deep engagement, and times apart from the crowds and busyness. We should too.

Melodie Beattie has a great meditation in her book “The Language of Letting Go” that encourages people to let go of the martyr archetype. Listen to what she has to say:

No one likes a martyr.

How do we feel around martyrs? Guilty, angry, trapped, negative, and anxious to get away.

Somehow, many of us have developed the belief that depriving ourselves, not taking care of ourselves, being a victim, and suffering needlessly will get us what we want.

It is our job to notice our abilities, our strengths, and take care of ourselves by developing and acting on them.

It is our job to notice our pain and weariness and appropriately take care of ourselves.

It is our job to notice our deprivation, too, and begin to take steps to give ourselves abundance. It begins inside of us, by changing what we believe we deserve, by giving up our deprivation and treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.

Life is hard, but we don’t have to make it more difficult by neglecting ourselves. There is no glory in suffering, only suffering. Our pain will not stop when a rescuer comes, but when we take responsibility for ourselves and stop our own pain.

Today, I will be my own rescuer. I will stop waiting for someone else to work through my issues and solve my problems for me.

Some of that might ring true for you, some might not. That’s okay. Look to God for help in dealing with your challenges, but remember that God won’t magically rescue us from ourselves. We’ll get into trouble if we don’t put ourselves in places where we can receive strength and grace (ie. if we don’t take time to spend in silence, in retreat, and in supportive community.)

Nobody will put the brakes on for you. Only you can decide to slow down and cut back on your commitments. Nobody will step up to the plate for your self-care if you are not willing to make it a priority for yourself.

Of course this is not to suggest that we become lazy and self-absorbed. We will still have to work hard. We will get tired. We will face challenges. But leadership is more like an long race than a crucifixion. Except for extreme situations, it will tire you out, but not kill you.

Come down off that cross. Chances are, God isn’t calling you to be up there anyway.

RENEW Retreat for Christian Leaders … coming January 2017

Standard

amen1.1What: Retreat experience for Christian leaders

When: January 15-20, 2017 (you have access to the condo from Jan 14-21)

Where: Arroyo Roble Restort, Sedona, AZ

Cost: $800 early bird (includes retreat and condo reservation), spouse attends FREE

We’re very excited to announce the first RENEW Retreat, which will be held in sunny Sedona, AZ! This is a retreat for pastors, church staff, and leaders in other Christian contexts. Led by Mark Brouwer and his wife Charlene (a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), this is a great time for renewal and growth for couples as well as singles.
The focus of the retreat will be on establishing patterns of personal and spiritual renewal, in order to build a sustainable, enduring ministry. You will come away with new inspiration and energy, as well as practical tools for building ministry around a stronger inner core of spiritual strength and wisdom. The retreat will involve ample personal time for your own rest and recreation, in one of the most beautiful and majestic places in the world! Plan for lots of time for hiking to scenic overlooks, as well as a day trip to the Grand Canyon.
The retreat will be held at the scenic Arroyo Roble Resort in Sedona, AZ. Retreat cost includes teaching and group time with Mark and Charlene, and a luxury condominium, with separate bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room. Condos come with two bedrooms, and the kitchen and living areas are shared.
amen1 amen2 amen5
Space is limited, so act quickly to reserve your spot.
 …
Early bird registration for the retreat is $800, which includes the training and your stay in the condo for up to 7 days (from January 14 to 21). This cost is for a single person … or a couple. If you take your spouse, they join for free. (They will be asked to participate in the retreat events.) Let this time be a true getaway!
For more information, or to register, please contact Mark using the contact form on this site.

Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors

Standard

 

sadmanThis is a guest post from pastor and author Scott Saulslastingleaders.com focuses on leadership in a variety of settings, but many of our readers are spiritual leaders, often pastors of churches. This article is for you. But not just for you … it’s something you should share with your church leadership board. I wrote about some these issues in an article for leadership journal about the “Friendless Pastor.” But Scott comes at it from another angle. Enter, Scott …

His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.

But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.

(2 Chronicles 26:15-16)

In the past year, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.

Five.

Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.

When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said,“Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Eighteen years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.

(Jeremiah 45:5)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…

Being a pastor is hard.

One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:

God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.

The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…

Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.

As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?

As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves Continue reading

What about pastors in recovery?

Standard

RecoveryAnyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.

Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.

So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.

Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!

Here are some good quotes:

Once an addiction is acknowledged and treated, another danger is naiveté. For churches that don’t understand the disease of addiction, it’s too easy to believe a course of treatment has cured the problem and everything can go “back to normal.”

There’s a tension between ministry expectations and what is necessary for ongoing recovery. “In ministry there’s so much pressure to smooth over one’s life story. But what recovery and what Christianity require are rigorous honesty.” It’s not easy for pastors to be honest about who they really are when their churches ask them to be something other than human.

Addiction lends itself to easy judgment, but it is not merely a moral issue. In fact, (Dale) Ryan says, addictions often start with a perfectionistic desire to do and be better. Seminaries are full of addicts in training, he claims, because seminaries are full of idealistic perfectionists. “Perfectionism leads to compulsive behaviors, and they don’t present themselves as problems initially because you get rewarded for them.”

Once again, here is link to the full article.

Wayne Teasdale on How Spirituality Makes us Counter-Cultural

Standard

One of my favorite books of late has been “The Mystic Heart,” written by the late Wayne Teasdale. Just to be clear, I don’t buy all of his assumptions and arguments in the book, but there is a lot of really helpful teaching in it about what mysticism is and how it shapes our lives. I wanted to share a couple quotes from the book about how the pursuit of the spiritual life goes against the grain of our culture.

We live in a culture that is blind to the spiritual life. It is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, psychologically dysfunctional, and heavily addicted to violence, entertainment, and consumerism. It is “religious” to a point — that is, as long as it doesn’t cost much. Most Americans, we are told, believe in God, but too few realize that life is a spiritual process, a journey in which certain skills in self-mastery have to be learned. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide or support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification ourselves.

Our life here is under a cloud of illusion and delusion; we are pulled now in this direction, now in that. It is important for us to be self-directed: We must decide where our life is going, what direction it will take and why. That kind of decisiveness requires courage and perspective; it means that we must cut ourselves free from our cultural conditioning.

In another place, Teasdale talks about the journey of life — the purpose of life in terms of an inner development that ultimately creates the foundation upon which our outward service and contribution to the rest of the world is built on. Here’s what he says:

Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centeredness to other-centerdness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not. Even if we reject them, have made a choice.

It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to [become like Christ], they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth. In the United States, for example, entertainment has become our collective practice. We live from TV show to TV show, from The Today Show to The Tonight Show. The personal cost is great: deeper ignorance, confusion, and despair, and less authenticity.

The Bible is a menu, not the food itself

Standard

Biblical-wisdomI want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …

In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:

Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!

No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:

I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.

The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.

How to help someone who’s struggling with sexual compulsion, but is not a sex addict

struggle
Standard

Over the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), while others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. I wrote an article about his on my sexualsanity.com website. I’ll include a link to the article, but just FYI here is the list of four things that people need to focus on:

  1. Vigilance – Recognizing that this is an ongoing issue that won’t go away, and continuing to pay attention to dangers
  2. Boundaries – Establishing limits and “bottom lines,” and identifying the places and situations where you get into trouble. Then finding ways to minimize or avoid them.
  3. Support – Creating a network of friends who (a) know the whole truth about your struggle, (b) are willing to help you in it, and (c) you enjoy being with.
  4. Emotional Awareness – Being attentive to your emotional states, and finding healthy ways of caring for yourself (so you don’t find yourself sad, resentful, and/or anxious and looking for unhealthy ways of coping … ie. acting out).

Click here for the full article

Chronic stress is a killer

stressedout
Standard

Doing the research for my upcoming book “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader,” I came across some great information about chronic stress that is really important for leaders to keep in mind. Stress researchers remind us that stress in and of itself is not bad — it’s a part of life, and it keeps us actively engaged. The problem is chronic stress — when we are overloaded and, instead of getting time for self-renewal, we continue our pace and get hit with more stress-inducing experiences.

The key for all of us is to learn to live with rhythm — to build into our lives times where we actively engage, and then other times where we back off for rest and renewal. In the Bible, the concept of Sabbath — taking a day off each week for rest — is presented as a gift, something that helps us live better. As Jesus reminds us, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

If you want to get a little geeky, and learn more about how stress — especially chronic stress — works, read on. This is an excerpt from the book “Brain Longevity” by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and it talks about what chronic stress does to our bodies and brains. Enter Dr Khalsa:

*************

Many people think stress is an outside force that causes them to feel tension. That’s not stress, though–it’s a “stressor.” Stress is the feeling that can result from a stressor. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s vitally important. It means that if you don’t perceive a stressor to be stressful, then it’s not one. Some researchers define stress as any difficult situation that you can’t control.

If you can control a difficult situation, it will probably be good for your brain. It will coax your brain to make new synaptic connections between neurons, as you attempt to resolve the situation….

But if you perceive your situation as out of your control, you will be much less likely to engage these neurons in creative problem solving, and much more apt to secrete the hormones that will “cook” your brain.

Continue reading