When I was 15 I went on a two week "urban mission trip" with my Boston-area youth group to inner-city Queens, NY. We slept on the floor of a church basement, did neighborhood clean up (picking up empties, syringes, and the like), ran a weeklong free summer day camp in the park for local kids. It was a lifechanging experience for me; I wrote my college application essays about the ongoing relationship I developed with a local 5-year-old girl , Natalia, I befriended in the camp. The large, multi-ethnic church in Corona was called New Life Fellowship Church.
Last month I happened to podcast a sermon called "Emotional Health and the Christian" by a preacher I like, and in it he recommended the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. I bought it and, as I skimmed through it, I realized it was written by the lead pastor of that Corona church whose basement floor I'd slept on back in 1991: Peter Scazzero, whom we'd affectionally called "Pastor Pete." Funny world.
It turns out my encounter with Pastor Pete in 1991 was three years before he, his wife, and the church itself entered into a "dark night of the soul"… about which he writes in detail in the book. It's tremendously powerful. His basic premise is this: "Emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. It is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature." Sounds pretty basic, right?
Turns out it's not, as the book makes clear. Pete brings his readers into his own journey, describing his efforts to evade pain and spiritualize away negative ("ungodly") emotions. God let it get so intense that his wife Geri actually "quit the church" (brave woman!) and began taking their four young children to a different church, which forced him to begin seeing- and living in - reality. He began to see that he'd made the wrongly assumed that following Christ would, in itself, heal his wounds and address his emotional hurts… And, because it didn't, there there was an emotional mess inside himself wreaking destruction on his own soul and the lives of his family members. Here's a passage I particularly like:
"The problem for many of us comes when we have a 'difficult' feeling like anger or sadness. Unconsciously we have a 'rule' against those feelings. We feel defective because we ought not to be feeling the 'wrong' things. We then lie to ourselves, sometimes convincing ourselves that we aren't feeling anything because we don't think we should be feeling it. We shut down our humanity.
So it was with me. I never really explored what I was feeling. I was not prepared to be honest about my feelings with God or myself… When we neglect our intense emotions, we are false to ourselves and close off an open door through which to know God.
I remember the awkwardness when I began to be honest about my feelings. Initially I wondered if I was betraying God or leaving Christianity. I feared that if I opened Pandora's box, I would get lost in a black hole of unresolved emotions. I was breaking an unspoken commandment of my family and my church tradition.
To my surprise, God was able to handle my wild emotions as they erupted after thirty-six years of stuffing them. I came alive like never before."
The themes this book covers are, I think, some of the most important themes we can give our attention to as Christians. It prompts critical questions like: What's really happening inside us? Do we care? Should we care? If we should, why should we? Are we being honest with ourselves and God? If we're not and we want to, how do we actually start? And then… what are we actually supposed to do with the junk we dig up when we start being really honest? And what do we do about how this kind of stuff affects our relationships? (And corollary for us parents, for another post...: how can we train our children in virtue while also helping them identify, own, and productively process their intense emotions?)
A very worthwhile book. I know I'll be referring to it - and probably lending it out - for a long time to come.
Heartfelt thanks to you, Pastor Pete.