Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Bad heroes

This morning I read an amazing blog post by Scott Sauls -- I've recommended his stuff before -- that specifically deals with pastors and failure. Not just failure to preach a good sermon or grow a ministry, but failure in the most personal areas of life -- the kinds of failure that destroy churches, ministries, families, and sometimes lives. I've spent a lot of time thinking over the past year about those kinds of failures. Sad to say, I know those kinds of failures from way too many angles -- having served churches that were wounded from the failings of previous leadership, and having seen the consequences of my own failures and how they devastate those I love and serve.

I learned shame and silence at an early age. Don't talk about your weakness. Don't talk about your needs. Definitely don't talk about your failures. Fake it till you make it. One of our favorite ways to twist Christianity is to make it a religion of sin management. In other words, it's not about God and what he's done for me in Jesus, it's about me getting better, whatever it takes. It's about me focusing on myself and overcoming my sin, rather than focusing on Jesus. Jesus gets lip service in this, but this "faith" is really about me and whether I'm making the grade or not. Hear me clearly: This is not biblical Christianity. If you doubt this, read the gospels, read the New Testament. You will find out that yes, our conduct matters -- but Jesus matters more. He is the focus of real, biblical Christian faith -- not you and your sin.

Millions of people have been impacted by Brene Brown's research on shame and vulnerability. If you haven't seen her TED talk from 2010, definitely do that. I've recommended it before. But this talk from two years later includes a couple things that build on her first TED talk. In this 2012 talk, among other things, she specifically addresses shame and how it impacts men. She tells a story of a man who comes up to her at a book signing and says that his wife and three daughters would rather see him die than to let him get down off his white horse. The message to men is, never be weak.

That makes it tough to be vulnerable and tougher to deal in a healthy way with shame.

Scott Sauls says that pastors make really bad heroes. I so agree. But part of the system we've created is that pastors are set up -- by seminaries, by churches, by our own misreading of biblical leadership, by the demands of congregations, by the cheerleaders we surround ourselves with -- to be up on a pedestal, looking for all the world like a hero. Pedestals are lonely places, and without incredible intentionality, discipline, empathy and support, the hero on the pedestal will fall. Notice that those last two items on the list are NOT things you can provide for yourself. They require safe relationships.

Many months ago I met with a young man who was considering the truths of Christianity. He was drawn to Jesus more and more as we had talked over a couple years, but the immediate reason for this meeting was that I needed to apologize for some things I'd done that deeply wounded him. In the course of the conversation I told him, Christianity is not true based on whether I'm a good person. Fact is, I'm going to get things wrong and I'm going to fail you at some point. I wish that wasn't true, but it is. In fact, it is because of what Jesus has done and how he has dealt with me in my imperfection -- that is the truth of Christianity. It's not about me, it's about Jesus. That doesn't mean my actions don't matter -- obviously they do, and I'm so sorry for the way my actions have hurt you. But Christianity is true or not based on Jesus and what he has done. And the comfort in that is that when you get it wrong -- and sometimes you will -- Jesus died and rose from the grave to forgive you and welcome you back into relationship, without shame.

Yes, I think Scott Sauls gets it exactly right. Pastors make bad heroes. During Holy Week and Easter, at the crux of the story of Jesus, we would do well to remember this -- as it is also the most demanding season in the lives of those who lead churches. The truth is, none of us is supposed to be the hero of the Christian story. Jesus is that hero. We are sinners in need of a Savior, beggars telling one another where to find bread.

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