Watching Titus over the years has confirmed a hunch I had early on in my pastoral career: most of the spiritual direction and pastoral counseling at the heart of the pastor’s vocation ends up with us asking folks to give stuff up.
Three sacrifices, really, and I’ve watched Titus ask folks to give up all three.
Charisma. Money. And power.
Of course the enneagram freaks out there would call it “shame, fear, and anger,” but that doesn’t really cover the whole of it. Some of the self-help crowd will say “attraction, security, and authority.” What hipsters remain north of me in Brooklyn who haven’t been chased out by or converted into trust fund kids might call it “what’s hip, what sells, and gentrification.” Theologians and philosophers call them “hedonism, materialism, and egoism.”
And in the church?
In the church — which is really just stealing from business self-help culture — we say “branding” and “growth” and “influence.”
But it’s all down to charisma, money, and power. Sex, money, and power to be more precise, but I prefer charisma because there’s a dark side even to spiritual gifts, as Paul makes clear.
And it’s the job of the pastor as spiritual director and counselor — as he who offers absolution and a vision of penance with a world renewed — to ask you to give up all three starting with the one you like the most.
You don’t believe me?
Guess what the three most important vows of every monastery and abbey throughout church history were?
- The vow of chastity. (Charisma)
- The vow of poverty. (Money)
- The vow of obedience and submission. (Power)
Of course they included things like fasting and pilgrimages and vows of silence and all sorts of other tools to rid themselves of these three, but the effect was the same: yielding up inordinate desires for twisted things in order to unleash the power of the deepest desire of all. Pastors, at their best, discover how you’re clinging to one of these three and ask you to give up — and good pastors don’t do it in ways that will directly benefit the parish under their care. That’s the trick, pastors: this applies to you too as chief sheep.
Let’s start with sex, charisma, the law of attraction, the shame center, the desire to rebrand your church, the extreme worry you have over being hip and cool. Simply put: if you’ve never missed out before, you’re really missing out. Jesus, when tempted by the devil to eat bread in the desert during a fast, said that man does not live on bread alone but on the permission of God the Father to exist in the first place — the word, the logos, who sustains all things. Jesus called others into that assumption. It’s not only the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus told to go and sin no more, it’s the Samaritan woman. They meet at the first-century equivalent of Tinder or a singles bar: a well. Lots and lots of engagements happened at wells (including that suuuuuuuper awkward one with Jacob) and this woman’s looking for a quick hookup. And Jesus reroutes her desires: he’s disinterested in her charisma because he has something else to offer. Living water. She immediate stops talking about her many husbands, immediately dams the endless stream of innuendo, and starts seeking the desire behind her desire for charisma. You know, it’s funny that some of the most erotic statements in Christian history hide in the prayer journals of Christian nuns? Not because they’re writing vampire fan fic porn about the men they want here on earth, but rather they tend to yield up charismatic and erotic language to the Father and get living water in return. Song of Solomon — for them — was a prayer book because the point of charisma was first communion with the Holy Spirit.
What branding strategy are you clinging to?
How are you operating out of your shame and trying to leverage honor your way?
Are you worried about whether people will flock to you? Do you want to be hip? Are you desperate to know about a band or a book before it’s cool?
Give it up. And drink of the fountain instead.
Then there’s money, fear, security, what sells, materialism, using your intellect for church growth. This is the American dream: security. Comfort. Possibly the three most ecologically devastating inventions in the history of humanity are the car, the air conditioner, and plastic. All three are made for quick profits by creating disposable commodities. All three are made for comfort: ease of an individual’s travel, temperature of an individual’s current space, convenience of an individual’s play or work or chores. We Americans love trying to control things with numbers and usury. We love fences that protect us from the scary neighbors the 24-hour news networks and talk radio warned us about. We love erecting houses for our cars. In NYC, the people who benefitted loved stop and frisk. Nevermind that we need our neighbors as much as they need us. Nevermind the amount of carbon dioxide our garages hold. Nevermind that over 600,000 black folk — women and children — were stopped and frisked like mobsters in just two years with no legal action taken in 400,000 cases. We like our control. Our financial systems.
Which is precisely why Jesus gives up the kingdoms of the world in the desert and then goes and calls the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and give to the poor.
You know, it’s funny, that passage. I’ve heard it preached in several different contexts, but almost every time I’ve heard it preached by an American, I’ve heard some sort of waffling on the end of the preacher. “Now Jesus doesn’t mean what he says…”
But that does not help people. I’m telling you, as a pastor, that does. Not. Help people. It makes the addiction worse. It speeds up the hoarding. It exponentially inflates the trust fund predicated on corrupt companies and the exploitation of the poor. It compounds systemic injustices done in the name of “safety.” It’s like if a volunteer in a children’s ministry complained that a child was stealing the toys of all the other children, the father of said child said “Johnny, give them all back,” and then I — the pastor — walked in and said, “Now Johnny your Father doesn’t mean what he says…”
We have churches full of old infants.
Full of them.
Stuffed to the brim.
Spoiled brats obsessed with numbers and comfort and safety.
Let me tell you: Jesus meant it. He meant sell everything and give it to the poor. He meant throw your life away. He meant put your entire 3,000-square foot house and everything in it up for sale through an estate sale company just as if you’ve died and move to the place where people need you and that gospel you’ve been hoarding. He meant it.
You know how I know he meant it?
One, when you preach it like I just preached it, parishioners feel the exact same emotion that we find in the text. The exact same emotion. “He went away sad because he had great wealth.” When you preach it straight, you and everyone listening walks away sad. Our emotion matches the text, therefore the text applies.
Two, when the guy asks Jesus for advice on how to be a better follower of God, Jesus quotes the commandments to him: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother. The guy says, “I’ve kept all of these,” meaning in his personal devotion and legal status in his country. And so Jesus looks at him and says, “Okay then sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” and the guy goes away sad because he had great wealth. Meaning that though he never killed anybody, and he never stole from anybody, and he never murdered anybody and he never cheated or dishonored his father and mother, he still did it all in a roundabout way.
The systems that allowed him to gain his wealth committed those sins. He couldn’t have gotten that rich without the murderous violence of both the Roman legionary and folks like the Zealots. He couldn’t have gotten that rich without the help of tax collectors and the usury he practiced on his fellow countrymen — charging even one percent interest, in the words of Nehemiah (something we Americans have perfected in our Utopia of Usurers). The Rich Young Ruler couldn’t have gotten that rich without adulterous politicians and the lies of local propaganda. He couldn’t have gotten that rich without dishonoring his forefather’s forefather’s forfather’s vision of the year of Jubilee, when all debtors went free.
Jesus absolutely, irrevocably, meant it: get rid of it because even though you didn’t commit those sins, you benefitted from those who did. On the positive side, this is why Daniel repents not of his sins, but of the sins of the nation: because sometimes you need to repent and do penance for more than the bad you did.
Sometimes you have to follow Isaiah and break the yoke on the poor. Not switch out the yoke for a lighter one. Break it.
If knowing that hurts, you might be worshipping your own security, money, business savvy, or church growth strategy.
Last, there’s power. I won’t spend long on this, but I think it’s telling that Jesus doesn’t throw himself spectacularly off the temple or call down angels either there or in the garden. It’s telling that he rebukes Peter for trying to bust him out and for cutting off the servant’s ear in his attempt at violent revolt. Peter’s journey alone should tell us all we need to know about Jesus’ stance on the quest for power: in following Jesus, Peter went from the arrogant, bar-brawling fisherman who cut off a soldier’s ear to the guy that got crucified upside down. It’s telling that in his own death, Jesus defeated not only sin and Satan, but statehood. The quest for political power, ecclesiological power, business power, family power, marriage power or authority or whatever you call it will utterly unmake you. It will consume you. It will turn you into Shelob, who ate light and used it to spin her webs and when she ran out of light to eat, she ate herself. It’ll unmake you. So will cleverly disguised church phrases like “influence” and “leverage” and “servant leadership.”
There’s no servant leadership in the hierarchy of the church of God. No worry about influence
There are servants. Period.
And then there’s everyone who talks about influence and clings to their own power. I’ll end this section on the call to the revocation of the quest for power with a poem by Chesterton meant to be read at Christmas:
Gloria in Profundis
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is split on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
Frankly, it’s not fun to be a pastor asking people to give up their addictions, to give up their hoarding, to give up their manipulations. But it’s good. We keep forgetting that God doesn’t need our branding or charisma or charm or attractiveness. And God doesn’t need our growth strategies and money and safety and comfort. And God most certainly does not need our power and influence and leadership.
And God doesn’t need me.
And God doesn’t need you.
But he wants you.
He asks you to consider fasts and chastity where your addictions hide not because he wants you to go through pain, but because he wants you and the fulfillment of your deepest charismatic desires sleep in him. He asks you to consider charity and poverty and revoking your privilege and wealth and control and comfort not because he wants you to go through pain, but because he wants you and the fulfillment of your deepest desires to plan sleep in him. He asks you to consider obedience and submission and even the vow of silence to revoke your power and influence not because he wants you to go through pain, but because he wants you and the fulfillment of your deepest power mongering desires sleep in him: in Jesus whose greatest charisma involved (1) becoming a fleshless fetus and whose greatest wealth involved (2) becoming pennyless homeless man and whose greatest power involved (3) getting flogged and crucified.
Should everyone reading this become a monk or a friar or a nun who keeps the vow of chastity, the vow of poverty, and the vow of obedience and submission?
I’ll answer that question with another:
What does it say of our churches that we have zero monks, friars, and nuns?
That will tell you everything you need to know about where we stand in our quest for sex, money, and power.
Blessed are those whose strength is in You, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. (Ps. 84:5)
Lancelot Schaubert has sold hundreds of stories, articles, and poems to markets like TOR (Macmillan), The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The World Series Edition of Poker Pro, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest, and many similar venues.
To grab a free copy of chapter one of his best written work (slated for 2019) and his best song, click here.