Tag Archives: Christianity

Shame and ministry of seeing vulnerable people


When Jesus saw her [someone crippled for 18 years], he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12)

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

When you think of Jesus’ ministry, you may think about the miracles or the sermons or the conflicts with the priests or the conversations with his disciples. But notice how much of his ministry is the work of seeing invisible and burdened people; people with shame. He sees lepers, the blind man Bartimaeus, the bleeding woman, the Samaritan woman, the centurion with a sick child, the rich young ruler and many more.

He had to see them; he had to go through Samaria. Why did he have to go? He had to go in order to meet broken people where they lived (or sat or lay).

Crossing the chasm of shame 

This past weekend I taught at Biblical Seminary on the topic of pornography and sexual addiction. The MDiv course, was designed less to help current and future pastors help addicts and more to help ministry leaders address their own struggles with sexual shame.  The truth is that we all carry around in our being some form of sexual shame. It is something we want to hide and keep from others. We don’t want this shame to be seen, even if our shame is caused by the sins of others.

During the class I asked everyone to consider one of their experiences of shame and to then list on separate post-its what sensations, images, feelings and thoughts that it might evoke (HT to the post-it queen herself–Heather Drew–for this idea!). Then, I had them consider what sensations, images, feelings and thoughts they had when they recalled a time they felt loved and cared for by someone who knew that shame story they carried. Students then placed their post-its on opposite walls of a hall. Silently the class first examined the shame side and then moved to consider the grace side. While it was easy to move from shame to grace in our activity, we considered the chasm shame creates and the impossibility of really being seen AND loved at the same time.

When I asked students how they moved from shame to grace in their own lives, the stories contained a common element. There was someone who pursued them, who stuck out a hand and drew them out of their shame. This someone was someone who saw them and love them just the same.

This is the central ministry of Jesus. He crosses the chasm of shame and sees (and touches) the unloved. Lest you think that God the father is a distant member of the trinity, remember that his first action after Adam and Eve sinned was to go find them. He pursued them. He saw them. He engaged in conversation. He provided a covering for them. Some of the most beautiful images of this ministry of seeing us in our shame and pursuing us just the same is found in the book of Hosea. Depicted as a wayward wife who has returned to prostitution, God’s people are pursued by him, bought back from the pimp and invited back into the marriage bed.

The main ministry of Jesus is pursuit of broken people, to see them and touch them. It is not to put them in a program of change as we are often want to do. Rather, Jesus invites those he loves to remain connected to him, to follow him. Consider the invitations Peter received before and after the crucifixion:

Peter said to him, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “if I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8)

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17f)

What if the work of the church is to see and serve shamed individuals? How might this change how we evaluate Christian ministry outcomes?

 

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The disconnect with some creeds: statements vs. conversation; orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy


If you read much news about Christianity then you may be aware of the “Nashville Statement.” It has surfaced in a number of locations with much commentary pro and con. There are those who disagree with the affirmations and denials, those who agree, and those who may agree–at least in part–but find something important missing. This final group commonly notices the cold expression of facts and beliefs that seems devoid of human connection. It appears to these individuals that love and relationship are missing, that it is a statement about people rather than to people.

At the same time, I am reading Heal us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church. This is an edited volume containing the voices of Presbyterian pastors from all walks of life about race problems in the church. Though a book about an entirely different subject as the Nashville Statement, there are two details that might help us identify the significant limitations of creedal statements:

  • Ideological statements vs. redemptive conversations. When talking about the problems of racial disunity in the United States it could be easy to mis-understand which conversation we should be having at a given time. While it is good to discuss what we think are the facts, causes, and solutions to systemic discrimination, sometimes those conversations are destructive. For example, if you begin to talk about an injustice you just experienced and the listener responds by saying, “well, that might have happened but it really isn’t a big problem” chances are you will not continue long in that conversation. Why not? You were not loved, not listened to, not shown compassion. What you needed was someone to validate you and to show concern for your experience. Statements of belief, important as they are, rarely meet people in their pain and confusion. Pastoral letters often do as they invite the other into a conversation. This point is made by Rev Lance Lewis in chapter 1 (especially on pages 3-6). In that section he suggests that ideological/political conversations alone “rob us of the opportunity to show genuine concern and love for the Black community.” Conversations, on the other hand, start with experience and move towards grounding in redemptive and theological foundations.
  • Creedal orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. In chapter 5, “We’ve come this far by faith” Rev Stan Long makes this statement, “Dr. [Carl] Ellis once stated that for the White Christian community, creedal orthodoxy is supreme. It is the primary evaluative tool. However, for the Black Christian community, ethical orthopraxy is supreme. We determine  the authenticity of one’s confession through ethics, not creed.” Creedal statements often talk about facts in the abstract and rarely how it looks on the ground, in real life. Statements such as these, especially about what others should do/not do, might better start out with the author’s own failings to love the other well. While creeds are important–the church often recites ancient creeds each Sunday–what one does after the service tells us more about whether those creeds mean much.

As a Presbyterian, I am a creedal Christian. I do think there are lines to be drawn in life. There are boundaries to be observed and even protected. There are beliefs to be stated in black and white text. However, I don’t think creeds make good conversationalists as they cannot provide in-the-moment wisdom (who am I talking to, what do they need now?) nor do they reveal the kind of person you are and have been to the other person in the conversation. And if we creedal Christians are honest, we have not always done well engaging the ones we believe are operating outside the lines we cherish.

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War-related moral injury: what is it? What helps? 


I’m reading David Wood’s What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (2016, Little, Brown and Company). David is a journalist and has experiences embedded in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD is well-known and discussed, especially in the context of war. If you have listened to the news, you know that many veterans struggle with it and struggle with return to civilian life. Suicide rates of current and former military members should grab your attention and tell you that we have a serious problem on our hands. If you have read further, you probably have heard about treatments such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy being used by VA mental health practitioners. 

This book, however, introduces readers to the concept of moral injury, a cousin to PTSD. While the features may look similar to PTSD, moral injury may better account for some of the experiences, especially where terror (the emotion, not behaviors) may not have been the main experience. 

The book opens with a story of a Nik, a Marine whose position came under fire from a small boy with an assault rifle. 

“According to the military’s exacting legal principles and rules, it was a justifiable kill, even laudable, an action taken against an enemy combatant in defense of Nik himself and his fellow marines. But now Nik is back home in civilian life, where killing a child violates the bedrock moral ideals we all hold. His action that day, righteous in combat, nonetheless is a bruise on his soul, a painful violation of the simple understanding of right and wrong that he and all of us carry subconsciously through life. 

… At home strangers thank him for his service, and politicians celebrate him and other combat veterans as heroes. And Nik carries on his conscience a child’s death.” (8)

The author goes on to argue with illustration after illustration that to go to war is to suffer moral injury, to suffer the disconnect between deeply held values and the experiences during war. While it is easy to see moral injury in the forced choice to kill a child vs. save one’s own life, moral injury can also result from being sent on a fool’s errand–political reasons sent to war vs. need to protect or defend freedoms. 

PTSD v. Moral Injury? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is biology. It is the body’s involuntary physical reaction as we relive the intense fear of a life-threatening event and the scalding emotional responses that follow: terror and a debilitating sense of helplessness. (15)

He goes on for paragraphs to depict the experience of PTSD and its cascade of symptoms–“fear-circuitry dysregulation.” But then listen to how he talks about Nik

…Nik doesn’t have PTSD. What Nik struggles with is not the involuntary recurrence of fear. He’s okay with the crowds at Walmart. He doesn’t startle at loud noises. In contrast with veterans who’ve experienced PTSD, Nik didn’t feel the pain of his moral injury at the moment of the incident…. [But] he is bothered by the memory of that Afghan boy and with questions about what he did that day. Like all of us, Nik had always thought of himself as a good person. But does a good person kill a child? …No, a good person doesn’t kill a child, therefore I must be a bad person. …The symptoms can be similar to those of PTSD: anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, anger. But sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness, and moral confusion–what is right?–signal moral injury while flashbacks, loss of memory, fear, and startle complex seem to characterize PTSD. (17)

PTSD has little to do with sin. It is a psychological wound caused by something done to you. Someone with PTSD is a victim. A moral injury is a self-accusation, prompted by something you did, something you failed to do, as well as something done to you. (18)

Guilt and shame are key characteristics. Not being able to save a buddy, making a quick decision that also included losses of civilian life, betrayal by leaders but being forced to carry out orders, or not being protected by buddies–all can create a moral injury. Add a mega dose of grief/loss from death and loss of companionship after the unit breaks up and you have a serious problem. (Don’t forget once home and safe, the loss of adrenaline, the loss of status, the replacement of dullness and the rebuilding of old relationships without your friends and without purpose will enhance all painful feelings including nagging guilt and shame.)

Definition offered

The lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. (250)

Spiritual community interventions? 

Despite their attractiveness, short-term interventions like CISD aren’t effective (chapter 6 details this). In addition, straight up attempts to challenge distorted thoughts are likely to fail. So, what might work? The book details some listening and validating activities by chaplains, including the burning of cards listing their “sins” as they leave the battlefront symbolizing their remorse and reception of God’s forgiveness. Talking about guilt, confessing failures and shame seem central. Note that confessing and validating do not necessarily mean that others agree that sins have been committed or that perceptions of self are accurate. They merely acknowledge the burden the veteran carries. Even the secular therapy models validate feelings of guilt while finding acceptance and forgiveness. Saying, “don’t blame yourself, you couldn’t help it” to Nik aren’t helpful. Finding a path that doesn’t blame or excuse (237) allows for a different path between all or nothing shame responses. 

It seems that what spiritual mentors and Christian practitioners have to offer in light of these themes are central to recovery from moral injury. 

The reality, says the author, our current therapies are only marginally helpful and sometimes harmful. Near the end of the book he concludes with this conviction,

True healing of veterans with war-related moral injuries will only come from community, however we and they define community–peers, neighborhoods, faith congregations, service organizations, individuals. That means it is up to us. (260)

And thus, YOU have a job to do

Listen. I highly recommend you read his last chapter (“Listen” begins on page 261). He will tell you how to engage a conversation in order to learn. No matter your personal beliefs about war, this is something you can do. Don’t look for the government to do the job, be the one to listen and learn yourself. Be the one to bear witness, as silently as you can. Your presence (more than your words) will convey compassion, understanding, and God’s presence.

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Does trusting God remove anxiety?


Over the years of doing therapy with Christians I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If only I could trust God more…I say I believe he is good but clearly I don’t trust him because I can’t stop being anxious.” Still others express distress that their faith in God does not change their feelings of hurt over past relational wounds and fears it will never get better.

It seems we believe this maxim: If I really trust in God, I will be at peace. I will not struggle with the brokenness around me or with the unknown future.

Is this true? Is it possible to trust God fully and experience chronic negative emotion?

Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a couple of Psalms.

Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.

At the recent #CCEF16 conference on emotions, David Powlison referred to Psalm 62:8a, Trust in him at all times, O people; He noted that this assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? David pointed us to the next line (8b) Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.

Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder

  1. He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
  2. He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
  3. He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
  4. He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
  5. He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong AND loving. You will remain righteous in your dealings with us.

While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.

This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a far better picture of the reality of life hidden in Christ than the false stoic (or Zen) image of being unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust (as much to remind ourselves as in bold assertion), we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.

You can see this pattern also in Psalm 42 and 43 with slight variations: Remember when I used to be out in front leading the worship but now my tears are my only food. Why am I like this? I hope in God. But I am downcast. Day and night God is loving…but it seems you have forgotten me in my oppression? Vindicate me. You are my stronghold so why is this not getting better? Free me so I can worship you…yet I am still in despair even as I hope in you.

If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.

So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your angst, might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?

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Reading the Bible as a Refugee


Because we are enculturated people, we always read Scripture from a particular vantage point. Sometimes it can be helpful to consider the lens we use and to try reading the Bible from the vantage point of others. I’d like to suggest that you take a tour of the Bible through the eyes of a refugee–a displaced person. Some 60 million people in the world today live displaced from their homes due to human and natural caused disasters. They have lost most if not all of their comforts (language, home, family, land, food, community, protection, job, etc).

Does the bible have anything to say about their experiences?

Right off, we see Adam and Eve, forcibly displaced from their lovely home, barred by an angel with a flaming sword, never to return. We often think about their culpability. It was their own sin that caused this trouble. Set aside that fact. Imagine what it was like for them to be removed from the best place ever to live for over 900 years in exile where nothing could compare to what was lost.

At the other end of the Bible we have John writing Revelation from…wait for it…exile on Patmos. In between these bookends, we have Abraham as sojourner. Israel moves to Egypt to escape a famine only to be enslaved for 400 years. Generations later David in on the run from Saul. Still later, both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms are sent off to exile with only a small remnant able to return after 70 years. Displacement doesn’t stop at the end of the Old Testament. Jesus’ first life experience is on the run from King Herod. Later, after Pentecost, Christians flee Jerusalem to avoid Jewish and Roman persecution.

But there is much more to see in the Bible than examples of displacement. Consider these biblical themes that relate to refugee experiences:Refugees from Syria

  1. God pursues displaced peoples. God chases down Adam and Eve after their sin. During the time of the Judges, God becomes impatient with Israel’s misery (10:16)
  2. God protects even within trouble. When Cain is exiled for murdering Abel, God marks Cain in order to protect him. Israel grows while enslaved. Exiles in Babylon rise to leadership.
  3. God sees our troubles and his moved by it. Notice God’s special kindness to Hagar.
  4. God wants to hear our complaints. With 1/3 of the Psalms in the form of laments, it is clear God desires our complaints and groaning.
  5. God invites us to share in his life by willingly displacing himself to share in ours. The incarnation reveals a God who willingly leaves perfection in relationship and community and lowers himself into a world of war and brokenness. His work enables us to enter in with those who have been displaced, “for such a time as this.”
  6. God prepares a place where we will one day be at home again. One day, we will all be at home in our true country with bodies that work as they were originally designed.

These truths do not remove the pain of displacement now. God’s protection in this world is not one that keeps us from all harm. In fact, our relationship with him promises that sharing in his death and resurrection we will face sorrow upon sorrow. However, knowing that God pursues us, sits with us, listening to our complaints, and provides blessings in the midst of hardship gives us hope for the day with all will be made right.

So, the next time you hear about the political and social challenges due to illegal immigration in the United States or the crisis in the Middle East and Europe, let that be a reminder to go to your Bible and read as if you are yourself displaced. Surely, we all need to work together to find solutions to these problems we face today. I suspect, however, we will be more prepared when we have the mind of Christ regarding displaced peoples. See how that perspective shapes how you live your life today and how you decide to respond to those in greater need than yourself.

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Confusing Culture and Christ?


The Christmas season is a good time for Christians to examine who they really serve. Sometimes, in the chaos we call “life” we can lose sight of who we worship. Last September Diane Langberg gave a twenty minute challenge to her audience about the dangers of confusing culture and Christendom with Christ. In her talk she explores the deception we mistake Christendom for the church. When we do, we fall prey to blind guides and to the temptation to protect institutions over being the hands and feet of Christ to the vulnerable. We fall prey to seeking power (or maintaining it) over speaking and being truth.

And for those who are not tempted to mistake Christendom for Christ, another danger exists. It is easy to become jaded with the church and want to abandon her as unhealthy. We can trust in our shrewd critique of the wrong things within the church. Yet, she calls us not to be toxic or arrogant. That will not serve the church well.

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Lessons learned in the Middle East


I traveled to Jordan in early November to do trauma recovery training/equipping work for Jordan Bible Society as a volunteer representative of the Trauma Healing Institute. Today, I posted a blog on the BTS faculty blog page on some of the lessons I learned there. I encourage you to check out those insights. The title of the post says, “5 Lessons Learned…” but in fact there are 6. Consider it your Christmas bonus (wink).

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Spiritual Trauma and Abuse: Assessments and Interventions


Today I will be presenting a break out at the AACC World Conference on spiritual abuse. If you are interested in seeing slides of my talk, click: Spiritual Abuse.

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Evaluating Character of a Leader? See How they Treat “The Other”


How a person treats “the little people” or “outsiders” tells you a lot about a person’s character. I once remember interviewing someone with great credential for an upper level job. On paper and in the interview, this person seemed like a perfect fit. But afterwards, I learned that this potential hire had clearly mistreated (with arrogance) a lower level administrative assistant in the organization. That changed everything I thought about the quality of the character of the person.

Most leaders are gifted. They have vision and drive and a capacity to instill both in their followers. Usually, this means the person has an excellent command of language so as to move others to feel as she or he does. But such strengths can be easily cloaked in deceptive languages and what could have been good is used for a bad purpose, most often that of personal gain.

How much more dangerous if the leader combines these gifts with spiritual/religious language. Notice how the cloak of good things could easily cover up evil outcomes:

GOOD WORD  ==> CLOAKED INTENT

  • unity                      your opinion doesn’t matter
  • trust                      don’t question my actions and decisions
  • truth                      believe as I do or you are out

An Evaluation Tool Better than Words?

Check how they treat vulnerable people, people who do not tend to listen well, people who need lots of attention due to their weaknesses. See how they talk about those who work for them and who get little public glory. Do they blame underlings for their mistakes. Do they receive criticism well? Do they talk in “we” language (vs. “I”) and back that talk up with giving glory to others where it is due? And finally, how do they describe their enemies or those who are not part of the cheerleader squad?

For all of us who have any leadership, let us remember God’s strong warning to shepherds in Ezekiel 34. False shepherds are those who

  • Use the sheep for personal gain (milk, wool, meat)
  • Starve the sheep
  • Not cared for weak, sick or injured
  • Not sought after the lost ones
  • Ruled with harshness
  • Abandoned the flock altogether

These are God’s enemies, destined for destruction. But we are not left in the dark about what a good leader looks like. Ezekiel 34:11f provides the test of a true shepherd, God himself. He finds, rescues, brings back, feeds, provided pleasant places and peace. He will bandage and heal and bring justice.

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Are all sins equal? The dangers of leveling all sins


There but for the grace of God go I.

Humility requires that we do not think too highly of ourselves; that we do not think ourselves better than anyone else. We all struggle with the same weakness–the desire to love self more than neighbor and to be our own god. We are all easily deceived, born into sin.

And yet, the evidence of humility is not equalizing all sins. Sadly, treating all as human has led some Christians to believe that it is wrong to point out the sins of others, to seek justice after wrongdoing. The error in thinking goes something like this:

  1. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all deserve judgment. No one can earn God’s love.
  2. God’s love is a free gift for all, not based on merit.
  3. Therefore, we must treat all sinners the same; that grace means the same treatment for all.

But ask victims who have heard this stated something like this and they hear, “since we’re all sinners then the way you were sinned against is no different than the way you sinned against God.” So, if there are no differences, then what happened to you (victimization) is no different than what happens to anyone.

Get over it. That is the message we send to victims when we level all sins.

So, consider this question: Does Jesus differentiate between sins? Do some sins result in more judgment and consequence? What about how he speaks of those who hinder the little children from coming to him? How does he speak to those who understand the depth of their sin vs. those who deflect or deny their sin?

Some years ago I was speaking to a large gathering of church leaders about the care for victims and sex offenders. I suggested that sex offenders did not have an automatic right to attend worship but that we could find meaningful ways to bring worship to sex offenders. One leader stood up and accused me of making multiple classes of sinners and ignoring the sin of victims (in his mind they would forever control the lives of the offenders thereby becoming abusive to the offenders). He claimed that I did not believe that God can restore and redeem the worst of sinners. This leader believed that all sin is forgiven (as do I) and thus all consequences should also be erased.

Leveling sins actually harms both victims and offenders. If consequences are erased, then offenders risk remaining unaware of unique temptations, unaware of how they may follow Zaccheus and pay back above and beyond what the Law requires. Victims continue to have little to no voice because what happened (and continues to happen) to them is just commonplace.

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