Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Acceptance”

Firing myself from a useless job

I came across a compelling statement the other day, “God does not need our protection or perfect understanding.”

One of the challenges I’ve faced in ministry is the pressure, external and internal, to protect God. I assumed one of the primary charges of the Christian faith, and ministry in particular, is to conduct PR work for God. It is primarily found in the efforts to explain God in light of life events.

I apparently bought into the premise that God has a fragile ego, and I must protect his image at all costs.

I’m realizing that my efforts to protect God’s reputation are more about me and my own image. I want to prove I’m right and that I’m on the right team.

Therefore, God better look good and right. There better not be any uncomfortable slip-ups in the universe. No embarrassing ambiguities and complexities in theology. No mysteries that we can’t explain and justify.

I can’t afford theological egg on my face.

It’s much clearer now that my efforts to protect God and his public image are much more about my own anxiety. It’s an attempt to protect myself.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that God is quite fine on his own. I’m learning that God is quite capable of standing on his own two feet. He was doing it long before I joined his team. And he’ll be doing it long after I exit this earth.

So, I’ve fired myself from the job of being God’s PR manager.

I’m learning to sit with mystery. I’m more comfortable with unanswerable questions. I don’t have to pretend to like everything that happens in the world–or happens to me, for that matter.

An interesting result has emerged through this process. I find the less I have to defend and protect God, the more room I have to be with others, allow them to be their authentic selves, and love them unconditionally. My sense of self does not rise and fall on whether they agree with me.



All we like lepers

Lately I’ve been developing my holy imagination by meditating on the Gospel accounts of Jesus.

Instead of reading the stories for “information-about-Christian-living” or for “principles-to-live-by,” I’ve been simply seeking to get to know Jesus. I want to watch him at work, observe how he is with people, and listen to what his words convey about him.

I came across Luke’s story of Jesus’ interaction with a leper (ch. 5). In his account, Luke points out that the man is “covered with leprosy.” Not just a rash hidden under his shirt. Not just a spot on his arm.

But covered.

No hiding or faking his condition.

As horrible as leprosy itself was in this culture, the physical condition paled against the emotional pain of shame that leprosy inflicted on its victims. Lepers were labeled (the name itself is enough to cause one to shudder). They were ostracized and minimized and shunned. They were untouchable–a blight to society.

The self-disgust and shame  this man defined himself by is seen in his approach to Jesus. “If (and that’s a big IF) you are willing you can make me clean,” he tentatively offers to Jesus in his  request for help.

All this while laying face-down.

This man has fully bought into his shame and learned his place in society well.

Jesus is unfazed by the man’s leprosy and all that it was supposed to represent. Apparently Jesus hadn’t got the memo that such a person was too gross, undesirable and dangerous to interact with.

Jesus reaches out and touches the man. Touches him. This guy probably hasn’t experienced this basic demonstration of acknowledgment of his humanity in years.

As Jesus touches the man, he speaks words of life. “I am willing, be cleansed.”

These aren’t merely words packed with physical healing, as incredible as that is.

Jesus’ words obliterate the shame, rejection and unworthiness that have chained this man.

“You’re clean.” It’s a message of belonging, value, validation and permission. Permission to join in life. Permission to participate. Permission to contribute.

As I imagined Jesus interact with this man, Jesus’ seemed to turn his focus on me.

I realized that I’ve been carrying my own leprosy–the shame of my own sin and the accompanying assumption that I don’t really belong. I’ve believed I’m not worthy of participating in life-giving contributions in Jesus’ kingdom work.

I contemplated Jesus’ words to me. He was offering to remove my leprosy.

I was struck with the audacious nature of Jesus’ grace.

Jesus doesn’t seem to care that we’ve been covered with leprosy.

Jesus has the nerve to reach out and touch us in our grossness. His only interest seems to be cleaning us, setting us free and giving our value back.

It’s as if he were saying to me, “Come on and join the party. I don’t want you to miss out.”

It’s almost scary to take it in.

I don’t think I’m alone, either. As I shared this experience with some of my friends, each one acknowledged they, too, have their leprosy.

As we explored our respective leprosy we concluded that at its core, leprosy really isn’t the particular sins we’ve involved ourselves in–addictions, lust, porn, jealousy, prideful competition, whatever.

Rather the real leprosy is the sense of shame of not being good enough. Whatever our stuff is, it tells us that we don’t measure up, don’t qualify and don’t belong.

I’m thankful that Jesus doesn’t buy into our beliefs in and loyalty to our leprosy stories. I pray we can hear him loud and clear.

“I don’t believe a word of your leprosy. All that stuff it says about you doesn’t mean a thing to me.  I’m all about cleaning you. Come on and join in the party. You belong. You’re enough.”

A starting point for understanding ourselves

In his fine work, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, David Benner states:

“The first thing many Christians would say they know about themselves as a result of their relationship with God is their sinfulness. And quite possibly the first thing they would say they learned about God from this was God’s forgiveness and love.”

I don’t argue with Benner in his observation. Most of the Christianity I’ve been around, and most of the Christians I know, start with this piece of information: we are sinners. Not only do we sin, but we have a condition of sinfulness.

While I agree that theology of sin, my question is this: Is this the starting point? Is this where our self-understanding and our understanding of God begins?

Or, does God begin with a different starting point?

I think the latter is true.

In Ephesians, Paul starts from a different place in understanding both ourselves and God. He spends the first part of the book exploring the infinite and extravagant love, generosity, kindness and goodness of God.

Long before Paul introduces our rebellion of sin, he gives ample ink establishing the love of God. And when Paul does get to identifying our sin, he states:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Ephesians 2: 4-5).

Before sin, God loves. Before we are identified as sinners we are identified as being loved.

Starting with being loved seems to vitally important for us to grasp. Paul devotes significant prayer toward that end (see Ephesians 1:15ff; 3:14ff). This is what transforms us to being the people God created us to be. It’s also basis for the rest of Paul’s letter dealing with practical issues of obedience.

It seems, then, that the goal of following Jesus isn’t getting our act together. Rather it’s to know and experience a life of loving and being loved.

In the former approach, we never quite get it good enough.

In the latter we’re already there, and we’re free to live out of that existence.

I wonder how it would change us if we started there?

Discomfort of Grace

One of my favorite stories of grace is the Prodigal Son. He blows everything, hits rock bottom, then comes to his senses, and heads back home.

He has a carefully prepared speech geared to diffuse what he presumes will be his father’s anger and disappointment. “No way do I expect that you’ll take me back as a son. I know I don’t deserve that. The best I can hope for is that you’ll be kind enough to allow me back as a hired hand–as one of your slaves.”

You know the rest of the story. His father exceeds the prodigal’s (and our) wildest imagination. He displays unimaginable grace. The father won’t hear any of the son’s pitch to be a hired servant. The prodigal is a son, through and through, and is fully restored into the family again. The best robe, a ring and sandals–all privileges reserved for family–are given to the son. To top it off, the father orders that a blow-out party be thrown in the prodigal’s honor.

Who doesn’t love this story? Well, okay, other than the prodigal’s brother those of us who identify with the older, more responsible brother. But otherwise, we can’t help but feel the thrill of such love and grace lavishly given by the father.

Lately I’ve been wondering how the prodigal handled his father’s generous acceptance and joyous celebration? I’ve been imagining what it was like for him to have a pricey ring on his finger, an expensive robe on his back, and signature sandals on his feet, knowing full well where he’d just come from.

How did he handle being the center of such a joyous and excessive celebration–dancing and wine and food and slaps on the back and hugs and kisses–after such self-indulgence and wastefulness, fully aware of the pain he’d caused his dad?

After all, the prodigal’s behavior wasn’t just the whim of getting carried away being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, his was the act of premeditated selfishness and rebellion.

How could the prodigal take all this in? How did he stay and party? What kept him from slinking out of the room in shame?

This speaks of the courage it takes to embrace God’s grace. While we glibly sing of amazing grace, truth is, grace is uncomfortable.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize the discomfort of grace. When facing the shame of a particular failure, I often felt it would be easier to run away and hide. That way, I could continue to nurse my sense of unworthiness and beat myself up. To receive family and friends’ love, forgiveness and acceptance has demanded more courage than I thought I had.

It came to a critical mass point a few weeks ago. I was asked to present a marriage seminar and do the Sunday sermon at a friend’s church. The response was moving. People responded with great affirmation and reported how helpful my presentations were to them. I could sense God speaking to me that it was time to move forward and not let my past cripple and define me.

I recognized that I was (and am) at a crucial juncture in my life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, I sensed the Father saying, “It’s time to embrace your calling and ministry. To hold back because of your shame is not humility. It is cowardice.”

Embracing grace, with its strange mixture of joy and discomfort, seems crucial to being the good enough pastor.

A Driving Force in Relationships

Genesis 1:1-2, 26-31; 2:18-3:13

The foundation of relationship is laid out in creation. In this story we discover the essential element for healthy, vital and high functioning relationships. We also see the basic roots of conflict and relational.

It all begins with God. Before time, before creation, God was. Have you ever wondered what God was up to before all this? This is more than mere speculation. The answer points to the essence of God’s existence.

We get a hint of the answer by the wording in the creation account of mankind, “Let Us make man in Our image.”

Before all time, before the foundation of the world, at the center of God’s nature is relationship. God exists as the Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit. His moral attributes flow from and must be understood in the context of relationship

This relationship is marked by other-centered love, respect, honor, enjoyment and validation. It’s the perfect relationship. The Triune God is perfectly whole, sufficient, comfortable and secure. There’s no lack, no need, no desperation, no demanding-ness, no jealousy, no forcing one’s way over the other.

Out of this relationship God creates. Much like a couple decides to create out of their love for each other, decides to create another to share in this relationship, so God creates us to share in this relational dance.

This defines the purpose of creation and is loaded with all kinds of meaning. One thing is clear, that being made in the image of God we are designed for relationship—relationship that reflects the Trinity.

However, we soon see a breakdown of this relational quality. And in this we come to realize what drives much of our conflict and relational struggles.

Things break down quickly when the man and the woman take the forbidden fruit. First there is hiding—from each other and from God. The openness and transparency are gone. Intimacy breaks down. The sacred trust and honor that the Father, Son and Spirit share are shattered.

Shame drives them to hide. The enemy succeeded in convincing them that it’s not safe to be with God when one disobeys. This leads me to believe that there had been more conversation between Adam and the serpent than the text cites. Adam and Eve already have a severe case of insecurity with how God handles disobedience.

Second, there is blame and conflict. Eve at least tells the truth. She admits she was deceived. She takes ownership of her downfall.

Adam, like many males, becomes defensive. He makes a startling accusation in his shift of blame. He not only blames the woman, but he attacks God.

“The woman YOU gave me. She tricked me and persuaded me to eat the fruit. This is Your fault, God. You’re not really good after all. You cannot be trusted.”

He sounds a lot like he’s siding with the serpent. Adam no longer has clear and accurate thinking about his Father. Adam no longer trusts. Adam no longer believes he’s fully and unconditionally loved. Adam no longer is convinced that God is truly good.

With that kind of thinking, insecurity, fear, jealousy, and shame take over. Adam resorts to blaming. He dishonors and dismisses and marginalizes Eve—the one created to be his soul mate, her companion, his lover and his helper.

Wrestling with Loss, Pain and Faith

I’ve been talking to a guy who recently experienced a significant loss in his life. A close family member died at a very young age. He’s struggling coming to terms with his loss, his sense of powerlessness when it comes to death, and questions about God’s involvement with this death. He’s convinced that God is testing him  to see how much pain and discomfort he can tolerate.

I’ve struggled with knowing how to respond to his questions and his pain. I don’t share his beliefs about God pushing him to the limit, but I’m taking  it slow as far as challenging his assumptions. If I were in his shoes, I have no idea how I might struggle with my faith. Pain has a way of distorting our thinking when it’s raw and fiery.

I have to admit that I was a bit relieved when our last conversation ended–relieved that once we parted I could go back to the comfort of being insulated from first-hand pain. I returned to the safety of my own theology. While I genuinely hurt for him, I needed to create emotional and theological space.

I noticed some weariness in my soul as he left. I was thankful for the distance.

That all changed the next afternoon. While relaxing after Sunday church, I got a phone call from our oldest son. I could tell immediately something was not right. His got straight to the point. “Something bad happened. We lost Juan. He’s no longer with us,” he said.

Juan was one of my son’s best friends. Just two weeks earlier, Juan was in our home as he served as a groomsman in my son’s wedding. We all immediately fell in love with him. We instantly recognized the qualities and personality strengths in Juan that our son had told us so much about. We celebrated and laughed with Juan. His smile exuded the generous spirit he possessed.

And now, just as suddenly, he was gone. A freak car accident–one that seems so random and senseless–claimed his life.

I grieve for my own sense of loss, even though I only got to meet Juan briefly. But much more, I grieve for my son and his new wife. They lost a dear, dear friend. The impact and implications of their loss is only just beginning to hit them. There will be layers that will unfold over time.

Hearing the pain in my son’s voice over the phone was nearly unbearable. It still torments me.

The wrestling of questions that my friend expressed are now my own.

I find myself resonating with Mary and Martha as they conversed with Jesus after their brother, Lazarus, died. The first thing out of their mouths was, “Lord if You had been here, our brother would not have died.”

My version is, “I know you care Jesus, but couldn’t you have prevented that accident? Would it have really been that difficult to alter Juan’s timing just a few seconds so that he could still be with us? So my son and his wife (and all of Juan’s family and friends) wouldn’t be suffering now? And what about my friend’s daughter? You could have kept her alive, too.”

At this point, I join with my son in saying, “It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

I do find some comfort and strength in Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus emphasized to the grieving sisters that this resurrection isn’t some far-off idea. He is the resurrection and the life right now, in the present moment.

While that encourages me, I am a bit envious of the sisters’ experience. Jesus acted right then and there in bringing Lazarus back to life. They got immediate relief.

We’re left to wait and to struggle with our faith and what it means for us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, now, while we still have funerals to go to. While we have empty places in our lives. While we have children who are experiencing immense pain.

Lessons from a Tragic Leader

The other day, a pastor of a Florida “mega-church” was found dead in his hotel room in New York. Investigators found a packet of white powder inside his pocket. While toxicology reports won’t be in for a while, the signs point to the unfortunate possibility that his death was drug-related.

The pastor was in his early 40’s. While I don’t consider myself old, I do consider early 40’s young. Especially to be dying. Tragic.

I regret to say that there would have been a time in my life I would have judged this pastor. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond appearance of drug use and the other issues he’d been involved in. I would have been quick to use the word hypocrisy. Compassion  would have been in short supply.

This situation elicited a much different response. I found myself experiencing two primary emotions. The first was sadness. What a tragedy for a young man’s life to be cut short for any reason, much less under this cloud of suspicion. He leaves behind children, family, and a host of grieving church members. Regardless of whatever vices he wrestled with, he was no doubt a talented, gifted and creative leader.

The second was understanding. Part of me understands, at some small level perhaps, how a man in his position could end up like this. Pastoral leadership is a demanding and often lonely world. Amplify this by the mega-church status his congregation earned. He no doubt was forced to be a celebrity, a superstar, a hero. Throw in the financial pressures such mega-status involves, the favors and entitlements that accompany affluence, the temptations and perks that follow along being surrounded by folks who mix friendship with chicanery—well you have a pretty lethal mix. My hunch is that he could ill-afford to be human. It makes sense how this guy ended up where he did.

Every pastor can relate to this world to some degree. Even in a small church (perhaps especially in a small church?) the demands can be unrealistic and suffocating. Many a pastor have fantasized about driving away and calculating how far they can get before anyone knows they’re gone. I remember occasions when I secretly envied guys who had heart attacks. At least they had a legitimate reason to quit and be free from the demands.

Congregations often demand a Messiah. While giving lip-service to Jesus the suffering servant, many aren’t any more interested in that kind of Messiah than first century Judaism was. Congregations expect a super-hero–someone with all the right answers, correct political views, unfaltering faith, powerful and charismatic leadership, infallible doctrine, and untouched by sin or personality faults. They lust for three B’s of church growth that measure success: Buildings, Bucks and Bottoms in the pews. They clamor for lots of all three.

What’s a pastor to do? Many of us fall in line. We are seduced by the fantasy that we can be the one who can foot the bill. We busy ourselves concocting the formulas and methods that promise to deliver, and then we sell our soul trying to deliver the goods. Our greed and pride eagerly embraces the idol of success. We want to be the very type of Messiah Jesus had no interest in being.

The result is often some form of being found dead, all alone, with a pocket full of white powder. Such a value system is toxic. It kills relationships, personal integrity, ministry, joy, strength, perspective, and sometimes, literally, people.

It leads to isolation. We don’t believe we can trust anyone with our real selves–our struggles, weaknesses, failures, doubts. We can’t afford to associate with the lowly, to get our hands dirty with humanity. Often times people quit wanting to be around us because we’re moody, arrogant, edgy, and insecure.

The white powder speaks of our secret life. Living in such a system forces us to drive our sin, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness underground. We bury our stuff. But it’s still there; it doesn’t go away. We end up living two lives–the public life of super-Christian hero, and our private world of sin, habits and vices. We work hard to keep them separate. We go to great lengths to hide our private life. We’re careful to only act out when we’re out of town. We keep the evidence safely locked in our closet. But in the end, one way or the other, our container of white powder is exposed. It won’t stay hidden forever.

How much wiser and better we would be to pursue the good enough pastor model. This concept strives to create a different system, one where it’s the norm to embrace our humanity and resist the seductive pull toward perfectionism. Such a system allows us to lead as whole beings, a glorious mix of strengths, gifts, successes, failures, struggles and weakness. It embraces grace, which doggedly believes that we are accepted and loved as we are–that we are good enough.


A Theology of Brokenness

I haven’t read this book yet, and I know the danger of appearing to endorse a book I haven’t read yet. But, I came across this quote on another blog and thought it fits well with The Good Enough Pastor.

It comes from Kathy Escobar’s book, Down We Go: Living Into the Wild Way of Jesus.

“A theology of brokenness embraces our spiritual poverty, questions, doubts, and desire for love, hope and redemption, and reminds us that the stink and the beauty are wrapped into one. We can’t just focus on the group of people who will confirm that our ministry is a success. Instead, we must include people who will challenge our definitions of success and stretch our imaginations about what the kingdom of God looks like. It turns things upside-down. It includes people we wouldn’t. This is the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This gives us much to ponder. If this quote is an indication of the rest of the book, it would be a good read. I’ll leave it for you to wring out the meanings this quote has for you. But one thought I’d like to raise is this: what she says about embracing the stink and the beauty in those we minister to also applies to embracing the stink and the beauty in ourselves.


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