Shaming Self-Contempt

For the Romans, the cross was not simply a means of execution for criminals. It was meant to saturate in shame the one being hung on it. In the Roman mind, crucifixion was meant to defile and dehumanize and was reserved for the most profane and vile of criminals. It was a method of torture and death designed to humiliate.

We often imagine the cross really tall, way up above our heads. In reality, the crucified were at eye level. Passersby would gaze into the eyes of the agonized and bleeding. The cross stripped humanity from a person. The cross stripped the very dignity and humanity of Jesus away from him. And during this cosmic event of the death of the Messiah, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus scorned the shame of the cross.

This cross, meant to scorn him— he scorned it. The Greek word for scorn translates to English as “to shame.”  So another way of saying it is Jesus shamed shame.

The Biblical text speaks of shame for the first time way back in Genesis. It was shame that caused Adam and Eve to cover themselves up with fig leaves, to hide who they were, and to hide from their Creator. And we, following in their footsteps, do the same. We also often aren’t okay with who we are. We think we aren’t enough. Shame and its insidious messages drivea us to hide from God, others, and even from ourselves.

Shame shows up in a myriad of ways. It is the voice in the head that taunts and screams “You are worthless! You aren’t enough!” And worst of all, “You are not lovable!”

It drives us to strive to achieve, to seek approval and respect as a way to mitigate shame. Performance, we’re duped into believing, will save us from the feelings of inadequacy we feel. Our feelings of self-hatred, we think, will be allayed if only we just fix ourselves, palliated if we could just pull it all together and arrive at the place we think we are supposed to be.

But whatever happened to Jesus shaming shame? According to the passage from Hebrews, it seems like shame should have been wiped away with the crucifixion of Jesus. So why does it exert such potency in the hearts and minds of people today? Why do we all, myself included, battle it endlessly?

I don’t know if those questions are answerable, but there is a psychospiritual approach that is alternative to either avoiding shame or fighting a losing batter with it, the two main strategies we tend to utilize. My former teacher Dr. Dan Allender believes that a major crux in engaging shame is to use it as a gateway into our grief, to enter the ways we have internalized the messages of “I am not okay. I am not worthy. I do not deserve love and belonging” that drive self-contempt. When we look at shame this way, it becomes like someone knocking on the door of the soul saying “Hey, pay attention. Look at me. Look here. This is important.”

To break through the contemptuous messages and dive into our shame is scary and risky and not something we’d normally choose to do. But a significant part of the spiritual journey is about learning to become more aware of these voices that judge and condemn us, and rather than battling and resisting them, go deeper in and listen, to be curious about what exists beneath those troubling thoughts and feelings.

What wounds are they covering over?

What traumatic experiences might they be masking?

What hurts are they obscuring?

 

It may seem easier to ignore them, to stay busy, to remain in performance mode, focusing outside of ourselves. But in the long run, this tactic is far more costly than it seems; it is neither effective nor does it get to the heart of the matter, psychologically and spiritually.

To have the courage to go into oneself, to enter the grief that lies below the shame, is a major part of the human journey. This process can be an entryway into the acceptance of ourselves as we are, allowing us to embrace our shadow side, our pain and grief, our sadness and confusion.

Going inside, exploring the inner landscape of the soul, either on our own, with a trusted friend, spiritual director or therapist, we can shame shame, not directly, but through the back door of kindness to ourselves.

This is the place we go to do what Jesus did while being crucified. Henri Nouwen writes that hanging on the cross, Jesus was tempted to hate himself for what was happening to him. He was lured toward the cusp of self-contempt. But instead, he scorned the shame of the cross.

Instead, Jesus shamed shame. He shamed self-contempt.

May he be our model. May the same response be our path forward.

 

How Jesus Did Cross-Cultural Mission and What We Can Learn From It

Discipleship was very common in the ancient world, so when Jesus began his ministry around the age of thirty with a dozen pupils at his side, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. His twelve students left their jobs and families, dedicating their lives to following him and learning his ways.

Jesus intentionally, like all Rabbis did, brought them into a process of theological and spiritual formation. He used real life moments throughout his ministry to teach his students about themselves, their worldview, the people they interacted with, as well as their future ministry.

Jesus was training them for mission.

 The Gospel of Matthew tells a story of when Jesus and his disciples encounter a woman outside Jewish territory in the land of Canaan, Refusing to interact with Canaanites was the norm for Jews. It highlighted the bias that Canaanites were impure, defiled, less than fully human. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she was different from them.

But he does something else instead, something completely contrary to what their expectations were in terms of social norms: at the woman’s request, Jesus heals her daughter.

I imagine how incredulous they were when Jesus, instead of turning away, Jesus continued conversing with her and, even more shockingly, healed her daughter. Doing this would have been earth shattering for the twelve because it completely breached the norms of how Jews were to relate with Canaanites. It was downright taboo to engage with a Canaanite in such a manner, let alone a Canaanite woman!

I imagine some of them thinking: What are you doing, Jesus?  Why are you treating her like one of us? Stop wasting our time!

This was a powerful teaching moment for the disciples, witnessing Jesus subvert age old cultural expectations. It would have disrupted their worldview and planted seeds for how they would come to understand the Other. It was a definitive moment in their life of discipleship, a formational experience that shaped their own approach to mission in the following years, as they embarked on their own ministries, revealing to people the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.

Many of them would soon go on to cross ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries to carry the message of good news beyond Israel’s borders. Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman was an important moment in which those who the disciples had viewed to be on the outside, to be lost, and in need of rescuing from their odd ways were actually worthy to receive all Jesus had to give. In was a harbinger of the Kingdom as a reality in which every dividing line would be torn down, every notion of inferior/superior revealed for the illusion that it ultimately is.

If we find ourselves in our cross-cultural service work asking questions like who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who has the truth and who doesn’t, we are asking the wrong questions.

If we think we are showing up somewhere to change the Other, may we remember this story and how Jesus did cross-cultural mission being asking ourselves how God is changing us through our encounter with difference.

As disciples, we are being invited to allow the Other to change us.

Doing Mission Well Means Facing the Reality of Colonization of Bodies and Consciousness

In his iconic book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers, professor of transformational development at Fuller Theological Seminary, tells a story of a time when he was sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert. In response to hearing the news that the Son of God had died for her sins, he heard an indigenous San woman say that she could believe God would let his Son die for a white person and that perhaps she could believe that God may even let his Son die for a black person. But she could never accept that God would let his Son die for a San.

She is convinced Jesus would die for a white Westerner and even a black African, but not for an indigenous San. In essence, she is articulating a belief that white people are most worthy of salvation, blacks somewhere below that, and San utterly unworthy. Her words show how she understands her core identity: less than human.

Why is this?

How does this deepest level of poverty that penetrates into the core of a person’s identity get lodged there?

We know that colonization causes systemic ruptures in indigenous societies. The settling of the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch, followed by the British, and later governed by the apartheid system, colonized millions of people.

But colonization doesn’t end at the level of physicality.

Its control goes beyond the body. The final frontier of the colonial project is the colonization of consciousness. Its aim is to convince people to no longer believe that they’re people anymore (check out this short clip from the late theologian Richard Twiss)

This final stage of colonization happens when oppression is internalized. That is precisely what we hear in the San woman’s words at the campfire, her and her people having internalized the message of being subhuman, one that originally came from the European colonialists and carried forward by the apartheid government, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.

The legacy of white, Western supremacy is alive, in South Africa, in the United States, everywhere the shadow of colonialism has made its way into body and psyche, robbing dignity and crushing the image of God.

And this has everything to do with us, mission-minded North Americans who cross boundaries of geography and culture to in the hope of doing good. It is essential, if we are to engage in ways that smell of the gospel, that we become aware of the colonial forces that have shaped the people we serve, wherever that is, down the street or across the ocean, and intentionally engage in ways that restore dignity.

In the next post, we’ll look more at these themes of shame, colonization, and how we can respond today.

What Thomas Merton and Karl Rahner Can Teach Us About Being Missional Mystics

 

Karl Rahner once said in the future we will be mystics or we will be nothing at all. The mystic is one who has experienced God for real, one who knows God—not just information about God.

Authentic mysticism isn’t about bliss. Contemplation is not about self-centered detachment. Contemplative spirituality is deeply challenging because it always has something to do with the death, the ego dying: “For you have died and your life is how hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).

For you have died to your false self and your real life, your true self is alive, hidden with Christ in God. An interior process is undergone as we transform into the new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Encountering the new means first dying to the old. It is the mystic whose ego has been transformed through dying. His self-importance and need for power and control has been surrendered. She has taken the risky plunge of release into divine love.

Thomas Merton, one of our nation’s great mystics, far from being a hermetically sealed off from the real world of toil and suffering, was engaged in the realm of politics, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Merton so fully engaged in activism work that he was criticized sharply for his outspoken form of spirituality that put flesh to his words and footsteps to his prayers.

“What is the relation of [contemplation] to action?” Merton asked.

“Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.”

The mystic is one who continually faces and accepts the small self and falsity and shadow on the journey toward prophetic action against injustice. In tending to brokenness in the world, the mystic tends to the brokenness in himself.

Deep spirituality compels us to action and action compels us to deep spirituality through a continuous circle.

It is through that continuous circle that both our action and contemplation are deepened, a process through which we are formed into missional mystics.

With a nod to Rahner: In the future, missionaries will be mystics or nothing at all.

Your Calling to Mission and Justice Work Might Be Much Bigger Than You Ever Knew

 

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There is a Hebrew word, qara (pronounced kaw-raw), that is similar to the English word calling, but its definition is a bit more capacious. It means to be called, to be invited and to be named. This ancient Jewish understanding of calling, the one with which Jesus was familiar, was like an invitation into a certain way of living, being, and acting in the world.

In ancient Israel, to be called wasn’t only a summons to a task, but an invitation for everything to change: relationships, spiritual life, core identity, and work in the world. The modern understanding of calling in our society tends to focus on career, jobs, and work in the world, which are certainly important and have their place. But in addition to outward forms of engagement, calling is also an inner process, something that is undergone.

To be called is to be invited within as well as without.

In addition to an invitation to an inner and outer way of being in the world, qara also relates to being named. Jesus’ own calling into ministry officially began with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The text in Luke reads, “Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’” (Luke 3: 21-22).

This was the moment when God publicly called Jesus and his kingship was officially announced. Before beginning his three year ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was named the beloved. God said, “I love you. I am pleased with you. You are my beloved child.”

It is easy to forget that Jesus, fully human like each of us, had the deep need to hear and accept that he was loved, to know his Father approved of him. He needed to hear these words that named the core truth of who he was, his deepest identity.

So much of our identity rests on the particular ways we have been named.

Who we know ourselves to be is largely based on what others have told us about who we are. That is the single biggest factor in how we form identity. Being named beloved was a significant part of Jesus’ identity formation.

In calling Jesus to his life’s work and destiny as Messiah, God could have said, “You are my Son. Do the work you are here to do faithfully” or “You will be tested greatly and suffer immensely in the task set before you” or “Persevere when you are tempted to turn from my will.”

But God didn’t say those things to Jesus. God didn’t tell him what to do or how to live out his calling. Instead, God named him.

Calling always involves being named.

An accurate identity rooted in being loved and accepted was crucial for Jesus—like it is for each of us. It is what every person needs to hear in their identity formation, which is what underlies all the choices we make and how we choose to live and participate in the world—what a person chooses to do is an outpouring of their identity.

When we hear the Voice say, “This is who you are, my son, my daughter who I love, my child who I am pleased with,” assures us of our primary identity as the beloved of God. From that identity, we enter into ministry and mission.

Qara leads us into a journey, both inward and outward, that is meant to be a catalyst for mutual transformation of the self and the other. The call to ministry, mission and justice work is the call to allow something to be birthed not only through us, but within us.

 

What is your experience of being called, of being named? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Are you wrestling with calling, with what mission and justice work mean for you and your life? As a spiritual director, I walk with people who are asking hard questions and exploring their souls, their hearts, their role in ministry. I’d love to connect with you on a personal level about working together. You can contact me at ryankuja@gmail.com or visit ryankuja.com/spiritual-direction

 

You’re Not Called To Short Term Mission Work Overseas. Here’s Why.

Imagine a Christian couple in their late twenties from Nicaragua who dream of coming to the United States to do pastoral training ministry. They’ve heard about the many lonely, overworked people, including pastors, whose lives they hope to make a difference in. They want to serve those who are lost in the competition and poverty of consumeristic society. And though they’ve received no formal theological education and only speak basic English, their desire to go to the United States is strong. So they begin fundraising through friends, family, and their local church. They follow their dream and show up in Houston to network with church leaders and meet people. Soon, they begin offering training to pastors and people who want to become pastors.

A highly motivated but unprepared couple from a Majority World nation comes to the United States to help. It sounds a bit ludicrous, right?

Here is a second scenario, a real one, involving an acquaintance, Mike, who grew up in Houston. He does pastoral training work in various Latin American countries. Though he isn’t a pastor and hasn’t been to seminary or received any theological education, this is the work he feels called to do. So that’s what he does. He fundraises and takes trips to Mexico and Central America to train pastors. No one questions his lack of preparation and formation.

Why is it seen as God’s work for Mike to engage in the sacred work of pastoral formation in the Majority World and absolutely absurd for the opposite to happen?

Is Mike’s work in alignment with missio Dei, the mission of God in the world?

Does it empower marginalized people?

Does it square with God’s dream for human flourishing?

Does it prophetically interrogate the sins of neocolonialism and ethnocentrism?

In many ways, those are questions for Mike to discern in the accountability of community. But they are also relevant to each of us.

The intention to do good in the world is an essential part of calling. When we look at many helping occupations, they all start with a person’s intentions toward that particular type of work in the world. But is someone’s good intentions sufficient for them to put on scrubs, pick up a scalpel, and perform surgery on a sick person?

Is someone’s deep longing to fight for just laws and policies enough for them to show up in the courtroom as legal counsel and argue a case?

Is a person’s desire to teach consent for them to begin their tenure track position at a university?

Is someone’s deep passion for urban design clearance for them to begin building majestic skyscrapers based on their beautiful vision?

These examples sound silly— because they are.

You don’t just show up to your calling.

It takes years of preparation, education, training, and formation. So why is it that if we are called to serving people across cultures that desire and good intentions are license to raise support, buy a plane ticket, and show up? Why is it so different when the conversation turns to “helping the poor” and all sorts of mission work overseas? Why can we just show up to that calling?

Wrestling with how we assign less value to the poor in terms of excellence in preparation, education, and formation is an important part of an authentic call to serve.

The call to serve in places of poverty is real. The divine draw we feel to compassionately engage issues of justice is authentic. But the calling isn’t about the going away to “try to help the poor.” It’s deeper than that. It’s more capacious and complex than that. The call to mission (to participate in God’s mission of shalom and the restoration of all things) is first a call to formation, education, and training. Only secondarily is it an invitation into the world.

Some valid questions may emerge from readers at this point: But what of my church trip each year to Haiti? What about trips when we go help people, when our group goes to paint a church or build house for someone in need? To that I’d say: short term mission (STM) is not a calling. STM is something people do. It is an American cultural phenomenon, a four billion dollar yearly industry. The service learning trips aren’t “mission” in the classic sense of of the word, participating in God’s mission toward reconciliation, the restoration of all things, the coming of shalom. Most mission trips are more accurately service learning trips or voluntourism, which means that there isn’t necessarily a calling involved. It’s just something churches do, again, as a cultural expression of American Christianity.

Mission trips can be great for the people going. They can offer amazing experiences for North Americans through exposing youth and adults to the inhuman conditions of poverty. But being exposed to poverty in order to have a certain type of experience isn’t mission. It’s a kind of consumer experience. There isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with it (except when it disempowers marginalized people and perpetuates the shame-poverty cycle). But no one is called to short term mission in the way it is popularly carried out—unless voluntourism or service learning is an aspect of someone’s calling. Even then, we still have to engage the need for robusr education, preparation, and formation.

Each one of us has been called into God’s mission for repairing the world. That vocation, whatever particular form it takes, is sacred and holy indeed, and much larger than we can imagine, certainly way bigger than a ten day trip where we show up to try to help.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts about calling and mission.

The Zoo

Comuna 13, Medellin, Colombia

The hometown of Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Colombia, once held the distinction of “World’s Most Dangerous City.” In 2013, it was crowned “Innovative City of the Year,” just edging out New York to grab the top honor. The Mail & Globe called the shift that happened in the period between being a pariah city, singularly known for cocaine and violence, to poster child for innovation “the most remarkable urban redemption project in modern history.” Clearly, Medellin is a city wrought in superlatives.A few months ago, I visited for the first time. The areas frequented by travelers—El Poblado and Laureles— put on display the wealthier side of the city. Hip bars, eateries and shops dot the tree lined streets. Well-heeled, designer clad youth go about their business, mixed with sorts of people you’d likely see in any other city.  I spent a few days sipping lattes under the perfect hot-but-not-too-hot sun characteristic of the City of Eternal Spring.A few days into my trip, I got off the beaten path and headed to Comuna 13, a place that used to be known as the most violent neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world.  There is still gang violence and FARC guerillas are said to still have ties to the area along with some other paramilitary groups. It isn’t exactly a safe place to wander around, especially after dark, but tourists have started coming to get a taste of the other side of Medellin, an area that used to be strictly off limits even to most locals. Built into a steep hillside, a series of huge escalators were installed within the neighborhood a few years ago to improve resident access to the main part of the city. This project is part of the broader “social urbanism” underway in the region.I rode the escalator up to the top of the neighborhood as Medellin proper spread out in a wide expanse below. The view was stunning. The escalator carried me past women washing clothes and men sitting in plastic chairs having beers in the afternoon sun.

By the time I reached the top of the series of escalators, there were about fifteen foreigners gathered,  all of us looking around. Gawking. Staring. Taking photos.  The proximity to the residents’ lives made it feel like we were at a zoo, observing from a standpoint of our privilege people in the cage of an urban ghetto. The inhuman grind of severe economic poverty is a reality here. The daily struggle to eek out an existence with an ounce of dignity is dehumanizing enough, let alone adding relatively wealthy white people to the mix, looking at you as you go about your day.

The objectification of the poor, which I wrote about recently over at The Good Men Project is a widespread issue worsened by the media and well-intentioned non-profit organizations trying to raise funds for the important work they do. Sending out photos of people living in the indignity of poverty to try to raise money for a cause, what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn,’ is one thing. Being a few meters away from a person in their neighborhood, entering the space in which they survive day to day on the price of a Starbucks Latte, is another thing altogether. Instead of looking at the porn mag it’s getting up close to the actors and staring. It’s worse than a zoo.

Feeling reviled by the whole thing, I decided to head back down. On my way, one of the escalator attendants—an unarmed security guard employed by the city—offered a greeting.
“Bienvenidos a Medellin.”
“Hola. Como esta?” I replied.

This would be the perfect opportunity, I thought, to get a local’s take on “the zoo” and hear his thoughts on this dynamic.

With my fledgling Spanish skills, I questioned him about it.
“Could you tell me about Comuna 13 and how the people who live here feel about the tourists coming, getting so close to their homes and their lives and taking photos?”

He went on to tell me a story about his friend—an artist and former gang member—who had painted a stunning mural on the concrete wall that we were standing adjacent to. It depicted the a colorful face of an androgynous being, human-like but with an undefinable sense of otherworldliness.

“My friend painted this. Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked as his eyes scanned the dramatic behind him.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“For many years my friend was in a gang. Then he began using art to help our community. Now tourists like to come see these murals.”
“That is great. But don’t the residents get tired of people coming here and taking photos?” I said, pushing my point a bit deeper.
“Some might. But most people living here like having tourists come. For them it means there is less shooting. For them it means this place is safer now than it was. All anybody here wants is peace.”

Though my critique still stood, it was much more wobbly. Listening to him speak, I realized I was importing my own assumptions about a place I knew barely anything about.  Objectification of people struggling to survive may be happening in Comuna 13, yet my critical view of what I presumed to be reality blinded me to the other half of the story, the actual experience of people living in the community. This is what we constantly do as Westerners entering contexts not our own, whether as travelers, missionaries, or volunteers. We are continually levying our own assumptions and worldviews, both conscious and unconscious, onto others.

Perhaps having camera-wielding visitors is a small price to pay for less gun shots and less blood on the streets. It’s not exactly a superlative—Comuna 13 hasn’t won an award for “Most Transformed Neighborhood in South America.” But sometimes I suppose transformation is measured in peculiar ways, like by tourists gawking as if they’re at the zoo; in some aberrant way, that, too, might just be innovative.

Psyche, Meet Pneuma

Genesis 1:2 describes what it was like in the beginning, when the earth was a dark, watery void.  It was formless, empty, and deep. The Message says that “earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”

The author of this creation poem paints a picture of a place devoid of life. Soupy. Dark. Empty. Like an abyss.  But the same verse says that the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the chaos. Which is important to note, because it means that the watery void of nothingness wasn’t all there was. There was more. God was present in the very midst of this barren, soggy, soiled wasteland, and when God spoke, something shifted. Light and life and form and order came into the dark, watery blackness.

Cosmos entered the chaos.

The Spirit in the Greek version of this text is called pneuma, which translates as breath. It was the breath of God that hovered over the lifeless void, the breath that animated the dark waters with a life it had not yet known. The Spirit was the catalyst for life in the space of that which was not-life.  There is an interesting linguistic link between pneuma and another Greek word, psyche, which in ancient Greek philosophy meant “the breath of life.” It loosely translates to English as “soul” and is the root of the word “psychology.” But it wasn’t limited to the mind as it is in popular psychology today.  The ancient understanding of was capacious. It was the energy that animated all of life, a person’s deep, mysterious core essence. They differentiated between that which was living and breathing and that which was lifeless—between the animate and the inanimate, between life and not-life.

So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about more than just the mind. We are talking about a lot more than Dr. Phil, psychotherapy, anti-depressants, Freud, and Hollywood stars who had bad childhoods. Because the psyche is as much about the soul as it is the mind. Psychology is as much about the Spirit as it is about laying on a psychoanalyst’s couch while an old man with a white beard takes notes.

This creation story at the beginning of Genesis is the first time in the Biblical canon that we hear about the soul. And the soul has something to do with breath and creation and the transformation of darkness and chaos into light and form. So when we talk about psychology, we are actually talking about creation. This story of creation that the Hebrew scriptures begin with is a poetic rendition of the creative movement of God. It is about order (cosmos) infiltrating disorder (chaos). The earth was devoid of life and the Spirit was present to this space of void and darkness which was all that was in existence. Into this space of not-life the Sprit brought something fresh and new and glorious. This creative act was the divine breath infiltrating the dark formlessness and infusing it with life, something the earth had not yet known. The old gave way to the new by the breath of God. And that is what the Spirit does, hovers over the spaces of not-life, renewing and enlivening and animating. Psychology is about this new life infiltrating the spaces of brokenness and darkness within us. So when we talk about psychology, we are talking about the creation of something fresh and new.

In telling the story of God’s first creative movement that initiated the life of the cosmos, Genesis is also speaking to a broader pattern of life emerging in darkness. Just as God hovered over the lifeless void in the beginning, God is hovering over us, over the dark places of wounds and trauma that we have experienced, the spaces of shame and contempt that keep us locked into patterns of harm and abuse, bidding us entrance into the chaos of our own selves.  Just as the Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters, so too does the Spirit hover over the chaos of our lives, the darkness and pain that reside deep within us. It is from here, from this understanding, that psychology transcends the standard therapeutic box in which it has been placed and becomes a central tenet of the Biblical narrative—of the the story of God’s ongoing work of redemption, restoration and renewal of all things.

According to Genesis, psychology is all about a God that initiates life in the spaces of pain, void and darkness in our own lives. When we enter into the territory of the psyche and the unconscious, we are stepping into the sacred terrain of the soul, a space inhabited by shadow and light, repressed pain and dramatic bliss, harm and beauty. As He did in the beginning at creation, God is inviting movement into greater life wholeness, within the world and within each and every one of us.  It is the Spirit, in the beginning as now, who brings life to spaces of not-life while inviting us into the same. This is something we can do with the assurance of knowing that the Spirit never hovered in judgment and condemnation, but rather in desire for life to the full.

Engaging psychologically with our own personal narratives, especially the places where harm has been done, is a necessary task, especially if we are to engage in mission practices that are healthy for ourselves and people who dwell in the margins of the global village. People who are forced to live in the economic inequality, the short end of misaligned economic policy of global superpowers, in the chaos and darkness of poverty, injustice, and death.  We cannot enter well the darkness of those dwelling in poverty if we have not first replied to the Spirit’s invitation to enter our own.

A Doctor, the Ego & Shoot to Kill: Mission Work in Haiti?!

When I was in Haiti a couple years ago, I got to know a physician from the United States who ran a community development project that I was visiting. Within the few hours it took for us to make the drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince to our destination, I began to notice an obvious pattern in his style of relating to others: he spoke to the driver, another passenger, and myself in really self-aggrandizing ways, bolstering his own importance.

After spending a few days at the project site, it became all too apparent that a major impetus for this doctor to be here was his ego. His false self—wanting so badly to be seen, to be valued, to be known—was the part of him running the show. He did not have the ability to really listen to another or the capacity to set aside his own personal agenda to be fully present to the people living in the community. Though somewhere deep inside he had the desire to be a healer—to journey with the marginalized, the sick, the outcast—he clearly had not engaged in the inner work necessary to live from a place of authenticity. It had been covered up, buried somewhere deep inside of him because he had not undergone the requisite transformational process of coming to know himself and his motivations, his pain, his beliefs about who he was and who he was trying to serve.

There were two twenty-something, short-term missionaries working there alongside the physician. He held the all the power and acted like a guru to them. There was clearly a disordered relational dynamic going on between the three of them.

And besides that, there were the guns.

There had been a few attacks on expats and missionaries in the area over the previous few years and it led the doctor to decide it would be a good idea have some handguns in the house for protection from intruders. The young women didn’t know how to shoot a gun, so he took them out to a nearby field in the afternoons for target practice.

Yes, target practice. He even had an acquaintance of his, a cop back in the states, take a trip there to train them how to shoot to kill.

The doctor’s need for dominance and power were linked to this violence so incongruent with the gospel and of making oneself vulnerable to the needs of the economically marginalized.

Though an extreme example, these are the kind of things that happen when the ego hijacks mission work.  Instead of life being born in spaces of conflict and poverty, death grins even wider.

Though this doctor had a bona fide desire to serve the marginalized, the narrative that guided him in his mission work shaped these actions.  His American task-oriented view of mission combined with a debilitating sense of shame and inadequacy were tied to the self-aggrandizing manner in which he spoke and acted, as well as the need to meet violence with violence—thus the handguns. The narrative he was unconsciously living by was disempowering himself, the young missionaries helping out, as well as the local people.

Sadly, this American physician effectively disqualified his potentially beneficial project from being missionally valid. His false self, which he was most likely unaware of,  propelled the forward movement not of a gospel-oriented engagement with a devastatingly poor community, but his own narcissistic need for constant validation and to assert power over another.

Eventually, the project he had dedicated himself to so resolutely had to close its doors, collapsing under the weight of his ego. He ended up leaving Haiti, yet another forlorn example of a heart so desirous of serving the oppressed, yet divorced from the self-understanding that is critical in cross-cultural service work.

This is a tragedy that continues to unfold across the globe, and there is only one way out of the spiral that brings harm to self and other: delving deeply into the transformative process that the gospel invites us into, becoming deeply aware with our motivations and how we impact, for better and for worse, the communities that we serve. The center of the gospel has so much to do with freeing ourselves from the snares of ego, and if we are willing to do some hard inner work, to pay the price of coming to know ourselves more intimately, we will become catalysts for transformation