I preached the sermon, Developing Love on Sunday, May 17, 2020.
Using the image of a photograph, I tell my story of learning to see Jesus in my story. The developing love of the Gospel makes this new way of seeing my past possible.
It’s been a few years since I got up in front of a crowd and preached. And apparently, it’s going to be a bit longer before it happens with an actual crowd. However, just me being up here today is a significant moment and I want to remember it, so …
(take a Polaroid of the room)
Over the years I’ve preached my share of sermons and, truth be told, they were a lot like this picture right now. Undeveloped.
What Was Undeveloped?
That isn’t because I was a young preacher or uncomfortable talking in front of others. Rather, when my seminary’s development department wanted to impressing a supporting congregation, they’d send me to preach a sermon one Sunday. They knew that my presence and charisma would impress the church and give the sense of a wise investment.
Nor is it because I didn’t have a way with words. My favorite aunt once commented that she found me a gifted communicator even when she didn’t like the content of my message.
At some level you could say that my theology was undeveloped, after all, today I describe myself as a recovering Lutheran pastor. But that line doesn’t just mean that I’m a recovering Lutheran. Yes, my theology today is radically different than it used to be, but theology alone isn’t the only reason that my preaching lacked dynamic color.
No, those messages were undeveloped because I was undeveloped. Love wasn’t having it’s way with me. Instead, I used the revelation of love as a tool to prop up my ego and cope with my chaotic inner world. Charisma and crafted language can wow a crowd, and a wowed crowd is great at taking someone undeveloped and making them feel vibrant.
Making Myself Feel Developed
Silent rooms with rapt attention, greeting lines with adoring parishioners, and those moments where someone brought up something I said the previous Sunday were like brilliant colors splashed on an undeveloped negative.
But my pursuit of color didn’t just happened through preaching and an adoring congregation. Sunday morning glory isn’t enough to sustain the illusion. The color that came from the outside quickly faded. So on Sunday morning I would stand before a congregation and during the week I would troll the internet seeking a momentary embrace from women.
It’s a dual life that four years ago had me sitting on the couch of a CSAT, a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist. As I sat there, he broke the hard news that the journey from where I sat undeveloped to some sense of genuine vibrant color breaking through, would take three to five years … IF I was willing to do the work.
Hard Lessons Along the Road
Three to five years is a long time and the work he proposed is painful because it demands that the ego dies and the brain learns a new way to interact with the world. To make it even worse, this news came 5.5 years after I received a massive invitation to wake up and start doing the work.
On December 8, 2010, I knocked on the door to a hotel room expecting a women I’d interacted with online to answer. While messaging, she agreed to make me feel colorful … for a price. But she didn’t open the door. Instead, three men lunged forward, grabbed me, and yanked me into the room, slamming the door behind me. It wasn’t until they put me in handcuffs that I realized they were arresting me.
That night, my first marriage and my job as a pastor came to an end. It is hard to find a more dramatic invitation to rethink your life.
I quickly found myself surrounded by family, friends, and members of former congregations who were willing to support me on this journey. People who barely knew me came with words of love and kindness. It was the exact opposite experience of the one you hear about from so many fallen pastors.
But I was so undeveloped, that I used their response to once again prop up my ego. I convinced myself that I’m just a sinner who does sinful things so what more can you expect? Deceitfully I insisted it was the first time and I just had horrible luck. I fawned about how thankful I was that I hadn’t travelled further down that dark road. I blamed my wife for not being affectionate and seductive enough help me cope with my desires. There is no word I can come up with to describe the vile darkness of my undeveloped life.
However, on the outside, my ego managed to make it look like a quick return to brilliance. Within a year and a half I married an amazing woman who, according to my thinking at the time, would solve all the problems of my first marriage. I reenrolled in Seminary to work on a Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Formation. Likes on Facebook took the place of an adoring congregation. While I pitched myself as someone living a whole new story it was really just new colors splattered against my undeveloped self.
It wasn’t long before I found myself caught up in many of the same behaviors. And once again, life became all about keeping a second life secret.
Recognizing My Undeveloped Self
Four and a half years after my first wake up call, a year before I found myself on that therapists couch, I found myself sitting in front of a blank document on a computer screen. The page awaited the words of my doctoral dissertation. The culminating work to demonstrate my expertise in spiritual formation. And I realized I had absolutely nothing to say. The only thing I could see on the screen was the unclear reflection of someone embodying the essence of spiritual deformation.
What compelled a compulsive liar whose whole ego soothing life was a giant mirage to offer as honest as I was capable of reflection on my inner world, I still don’t know. But before the introduction ended, I described myself as a former pastor who “stopped looking to Jesus to bring peace to my lamenting soul, but went on teaching, or at least trying to teach, the cognitive propositions that I found so meaningless.”
Naked and Not Ashamed
A few weeks ago in Frances’ Christ-mindfulness class, one of the participants said, “You can’t do your shadow work unless you know God is love.”
In other words, you can’t sit down in the midst of all of your crap, you can’t face the illusions your ego crafts and be honest about the way you use people and love things, you can’t see your undeveloped self unless you have a God who disempowers the shame Adam and Eve first experienced in the Garden.
To get to that level of vulnerability and honesty, to be naked and not ashamed, we need to know at the core of our being that we are unconditionally and relentlessly loved.
But that is something the theology I embraced at the time didn’t allow.
Lutherans are known for their emphasis on forgiveness. But it’s a forgiveness focuses the sinful things you do, even as it reinforces your fundamental depravity. Growing up we used to open every church service with the confession, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities, with which I have ever offended Thee, and justly deserve Thy temporal and eternal punishment.”
We would go on to ask God to forgive us because of Christ but we remained poor miserable sinners who constantly offend God.
Guilt and Shame
Brene Brown offers simple definitions of guilt and shame. Guilt is what you feel when you’ve done something wrong. Shame is what you feel when you believe there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Growing up, Lutheranism dismissed my guilt and reinforced my shame.
The problem is, shame prompts us to dive deeper into our coping mechanisms and dysfunctional behavior. It fuels addiction, anger, and the desire to have power over others. So my faith left me feeling guilt free about the ways I harmed others while fueling the compulsions that would do more harm. My faith nurtured the very antithesis of Jesus’ call to love our neighbor.
So as I looked at that blank page getting ready to write my dissertation, the guilt-free but shame-filled wreck I saw looking back at me was exactly who the faith I embraced formed me to be. And it sickened me. I hated who I saw. I despised who I was. But my understand of God left me with no other choice.
Hanging there, at the end of my rope, I dared to wonder if I held a flawed understanding of God. My dissertation became me turning to the Bible and asking, “If Jesus is the true revelation of God, then what does Jesus say God is like?”
While my work took me through the four Gospel accounts, perhaps it’s easiest to encapsulate what I discovered while writing my dissertation by looking at the change in how I read Ephesians 2:1-7:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of humankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Who Is Wrathful?
As a Lutheran, I loved these verses because they clearly described who I confessed myself to be in our weekly confession. I am, by nature, a child of wrath. A child who, at the very core of who I am, provokes God to anger and vengeance that is unleashed on Jesus so I might be forgiven.
So what do I do today with “children of wrath?” In the Greek, the word for wrath appears in what’s called the dative. It’s a grammar term and it leaves the translator with a couple of interpretive choices. Translators get to either make the word the object of a preposition by adding the word “of” or they get to make it a possessive. So in this case, translators have to choose between “children of wrath” or “wrathful children.”
The question the translator needs to answer is who is full of wrath. Is it God or is it us?
Is the problem that God is holy and therefore offended by sin that is an assault to divine holiness, or are we as people so caught up in our shame that we become wrathful towards ourselves, others, and God?
I grew up thinking God was wrathful towards me because of my sinful nature. Today, I believe I was an undeveloped and wrathful yet beloved child of God.
Growing up, Jesus died to change God’s mind about me. Today I believe Jesus died to change my mind about God.
Growing up, God was angry. Today, God exudes shame destroying transformative love.
Shame Destroying Love
It’s that shame destroying love that allows me to sit here right now and talk about my story. It assures me that I can be vulnerable and, however you might respond, it will have no impact on my belovedness. In the words of author Neil Gaiman it convinces me, “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”
But it’s taken most of the past four years for that belief to shift from the words on the page of my dissertation, to something my being genuinely embraces. It’s been four years of me soaking in that development fluid of divine love just to get to the point where I can be here today.
As it turns out, soon after finishing my dissertation, soon after getting a cognitive theory about a different understanding of who God is on the page, my second wife found undeniable and damning evidence of my secret second life. It wasn’t the first time I’d failed to cover my tracks, but this time, there was no lie that could explain away what was found. I couldn’t hide anymore.
At the same time, for the first time, part of me wanted to be developed. Exposing myself and being vulnerable was terrifying and I had no clue how to be honest, but there was something about this shift in my faith that made a new way of living seem possible. For the first time in my life, God felt safe. So I found myself on that therapist’s couch hearing about the three to five years of work that needed to be done.
Where I am Today
Today, I wish I could say that everything from that point on was easy. It would be awesome if I could tell you about a marriage brought back from the brink. Unfortunately, I now have two divorces on my record. The sermon I would really like to preach is the one that has me victoriously living as a fully-developed man. But if I preached that message, it would just be adding another undeveloped sermon to the list … a sermon more about getting all of you to make me feel good about myself as opposed to proclaiming the good news of a God who relentlessly and passionately loves us even when we refuse to receive that shame destroying love.
At the same time, I can say with all honesty that my life today looks radically different than it did on December 8, 2010 when I knocked on the door of that hotel room, or four years ago when I sat on that therapist’s couch. But it’s not because of me. Rather, it’s because love is finally breaking through and transforming the way I interact with the world around me. Relentless love is undermining wrath inducing shame.
It started as love edited the images and stories of my childhood, undeveloped memories that left me feeling desperate, angry, and worthless. Love continues to reveal where Jesus stands in the midst of those memories, disempowering the shame.
Why start there? Because thats where the older part of our brain, our limbic system, learns how to react to the world around us. Past experience determines present response. So if we want to learn how to respond differently, we need to either override past experience and create an exception to the rule, or we need to change our memory from the past and creating a new foundation to live from.
Where Is God?
I’m going to share a few of those stories with you, but before I do, I think it’s important for me to share a bit about how I think about God and where God stands in relationship to history.
You see, I think most of us view God as standing above the timeline of history being a grand chess master who is manipulates the pieces. So if something happens, it’s because God made it happen. This works great when something good happens because we get to praise God. But when something horrible happens, we can’t help but ask why. This asking why often prompts for some desperate search to justify what happened … to find the blessing in the broken. When we can’t find it, it’s not uncommon for us to begin to doubt how a loving God could allow something so horrible to happen.
In contrast to this I see God standing at the end of time as we know it. From that perspective, God already sees the fully developed picture and knows that it is very good. God’s activity in the world then is to press love into time and space to develop what is into what God sees. As a result I’m no longer interested in asking why something happens, rather, I always find myself wondering how God is going to soak the reality that is, in divine love, so what is can develop into what God sees.
With that in mind, a bit of my childhood, how life nurtured me to be a wrathful child and how God is developing the story with love.
A reoccurring theme in the glimpses I have or my interpretation of stories I’m told is that I spent my childhood alone and unwanted. My mom talks about how I used to spend hours scooping up blocks and putting them into a cupcake tin only to dump the tin and reload the blocks. As I envisioned it, I was alone.
There’s another memory of me at a bowling alley, spinning a ball on the cart, alone.
Then there’s me cowering in the corner of an activity filled Montessori preschool.
Now I don’t know how each of these scenes actually played out in real time, but what was etched into my brain was isolation. The message is that I don’t fit. I’m unwanted. And while I desperately want to connect, the idea of doing so terrifies me because I assume rejection.
How Birth Wired Me
In what might be the oddest question I’ve ever had during a therapy intake, a therapist asked me a number of questions, paused, and said, “You’re a caesarean birth, right?”
“A difficult labor?”
“About 12 hours. I was nine and half pounds and breech. The family joke is that I came out with calloced fingers from holding on so tight.”
“Well that explains a lot.”
He went on to talk about two dynamics that played out in my birth. First he talked about the stress of the event. During those 12 hours, the hormone cortisol repeatedly flushed through my body, activating and reactivating my sympathetic nervous system … it’s the part of us that engages the fight, flight, or freeze response.
He went on to explain, “Based on everything you’ve told me, I’m going to guess that your sympathetic nervous system turns on at nothing and easily gets stuck in the on position. No wonder you want to be alone and your human longing for connection feels terrifying.”
“But there’s another level.”
He went on to explain that during a vaginal birth there’s another set of hormones released that promote attachment and human bonding. Caesarean babies on the whole, because they miss that hormone bath, have more attachment issues than children born vaginally.
The point, my birth wired my brain for disconnection, isolation, and a deep sense of being anxiously unwanted. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just what is.
But it’s also no surprise that when a boy grows up believing that, and his experience affirms that, he becomes a man who seeks affirmation that he can control. Relationship at arms length. Offering both sides the illusion of connection, but never really going there.
Developing Love and Memories
So how does a God who stands at the end of time as we know it press love into that undeveloped picture?
One of the ways God brings healing into my life is what I’ll call visions. They’re not dreams since I’m awake, but through hypnosis, EMDR, meditation or a visioning journey, Jesus will appear and redefine the memories and experiences that drive my life.
In one of these instances, I see myself floating above a hospital birthing unit watching my own birth. As the doctor takes me from my mother’s body, my perspective shifts from an observer to me as a baby, and I find myself placed into the arms of Jesus. Safe, strong arms that hold me close. And I look up to see him gazing down with absolute adoration. He takes his finger and writes the word, “Beloved,” on my heart, and whispers the words, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
With these words the scene changes. I see myself sitting on the kitchen floor with cupcake tins, but Jesus is there with me scooping up blocks. He’s there in the bowling alley, and we laugh as we spin bowling balls on the racks. And when I’m cowering in the corner of that preschool, it’s Jesus who comes to invite me to play.
As each of these scenes develop, I feel that inner chaos calm. I find myself less afraid and more open to genuine connection. I don’t find myself aching for approval, because I knew that no matter what happens, I’m a beloved son and Jesus will never leave me.
But there’s more to the story of my childhood and the nurturing of wrathfulness than a chaotic birth. As I sat on that therapist’s couch four years ago, he asked, “What do you think happened to you as you gave each woman you met a piece of your soul?”
My gut reaction? “I don’t think I had a soul to give.”
I didn’t realize at the time how accurate the statement was.
Psychologist Peter Levine served as my introduction to the idea of soul retrieval. The concept teaches that, as a defense mechanism, traumatic experience prompts part of our psyche, our soul, to disassociate. Part of us, quite literally, steps outside of ourselves until it is safe to reconnect. Sometimes reconnection never feels safe, so we have to go after our soul and retrieve it.
It didn’t take long for my parents to pull me out of the overstimulating Montessori preschool. It was just too much for me. Instead, they enrolled me in a private in-home preschool with about ten students.
Losing My Soul
Today, I have two sets of memories from that place. One involves me feeling welcomed, accepted, and loved. My teachers celebrated my academic aptitude and took extra time for advance tutoring to nurture my intellectual curiosity.
The other set of memories leaves me feeling numb and disconnected. They’re confusing and chaotic. They are wrath inducing. Why? As a part of that private tutoring, my teacher took me to a room upstairs and did things to my body that no child should ever have to experience. I have moments where I can still feel her hands on my skin, my body clinches as it fights off the still lingering sensations, and I can still hear her tell me, “You can’t tell anyone.”
A few years ago, I went back to my childhood home and walked down the path across the street. As the greenway ended I turned right and saw the stump of a tree I loved to climb as child. I turned left into a culdesac and at the end of the block I came to the house where I went to preschool. On the west side of the house on the upper level, there’s a room with a large window. From a distance I looked in and saw my four year old self looking staring blankly in my direction. Part of my soul, still in that room, waiting to be retrieved.
Developing Love and Trauma
In the months that followed, that image came to mind numerous times, and much like my other childhood memories, divine love develops the image so I can see Jesus there. I’ve seen Jesus inviting my soul away from my body to protect it from the abuse. I’ve seen Jesus standing at the window with me, holding me close. It was Jesus who told me it was ok to break my promise to not tell anyone. At 44 years old, I did what the 4 year old version of me couldn’t, I told my parents what happened four decades earlier.
It’s hard to describe the change that began that day a year and a half ago. Sitting in the living room of the home we moved into on the last day of seventh grade. Telling them that my second attempt at marriage was officially over. Trying to explain how someone so full of promise made such a wreck of his life.
I still can’t explain why I chose that moment to tell them what happened forty years earlier. It wasn’t to blame them. There was no way they could know and I know they did the best they could. It also wasn’t to blame my abuser, after all, I have no idea what might have happened to her. Ultimately, I just needed to defy the promise I’d made to not tell anyone. I needed to tell who I should have told at the time. I needed to take action so I could retrieve my soul from that window.
In the days and weeks that followed I began to feel as if I actually lived in my own body. For decades being honest about anything potentially shameful or embarrassing was physiologically painful if not impossible, but today, there’s a freedom in truth telling. And perhaps most importantly, that day gave me power over my own story and released me from bondage to victimhood.
Developing Love and Victimhood
You see, once you experience trauma and abuse, it’s easy to be a victim. It’s easy to interpret all of life through that lens. Using your own pain as a way to justify and dismiss the pain you cause others is easy. Becoming wrathful feels all too natural.
In the end, it’s another form of that Lutheran theology I grew up with that seeks to absolve guilt while doing nothing about shame.
Truth be told, I still want to cast myself as a victim of the theology. Yet there are millions of people who’ve embraced some form of it and not travelled to the dark and undeveloped places I went. No, if I’m being honest, while I believe I allowed that perspective to form me, I allowed it to do so because I didn’t want to do the hard work. I wanted the easy out. The idea of forgiving my abuser and admitting how I’d abused others made me angry.
I have two ex-wives that I promised to have and to hold till death do us part, and I betrayed them both. The first one I blamed for my betrayal. The second I started deceiving on our first date even as she asked if there was more to share.
I have a 13 year old son, one who wants nothing more than a stable home, watch two women he calls mom leave me.
I’ve used women and their bodies in attempt to sooth my own inner chaos. I’ve embarrassed family and friends. My pledge as a pastor, broken. I’ve done harm to those struggling to believe in a good and loving God. So many people who are collateral damage because of my own inner war.
At some level, that guilt will sit with me the rest of my life. And it should, because what I did and how I lived was wrong. That guilt is a reminder of who I become and how I live when I don’t ground myself in my shame destroying belovedness. It reminds me that I used to be a wrathful child.
Now that doesn’t mean that I’m fully developed. Love is still working on me. Whether it’s loving my son the way my Heavenly Father loves me, handling moments of loneliness in healthy ways, learning how to be in healthy relationships, or remembering how to be fun, playful, and care free as opposed to eternally intense.
Developing Love in the Body and Blood
When I look around at our world it seems so far from what God sees. So many things in our world that are undeveloped. Some of them like this bread seem rather benign. Others, like wine, are wonderful, but when abused, become lethal to ourselves and harmful to others. Jesus takes them both and blesses them, saying this is my body and my blood. Love takes them both, and develops them into something beautiful.
A couple of months ago on Ash Wednesday I stood in this very room and, with one hand felt the absolute joy of knowing that Jesus is, quite literally, putting me back together. With the other hand, I felt the weight of all the people I’ve harmed over the years. As I stood in that space I heard the clear voice of relentless love remind me, “I’ve been faithful with you, trust me to be faithful with them.”
Jesus invites us to give him everything, so he can bless it with his love, so it can be developed and transformed and made new. So wherever you are, receive. Eat. Drink. This is the developing love of the Gospel place inside of you. Believe the Gospel and let love develop both your hurts and the harm you’ve done, till the radiant colors shine through. Amen.