Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

Talk about serendipity. I have been struggling for a while with a particular situation in my life, and just today saw something that just leapt out at me. Because the overall scenario relates to the focus of this blog, I thought I would share some stray thoughts and maybe help some other folks along the way.

The truth of the matter is that every single one of us has to deal at some point in our lives with toxic people. By toxic I mean poisonous – they are simply not happy until they ruin other people’s happiness or fortune or both. They will scam and cheat to get to the top, and if they are not on the top, they will do everything in their power to destroy or dethrone those on the top. If they feel threatened they will not just respond in kind, they will respond with exponentially more aggression than they feel has been directed against them. Our current president of the United States is a poster child of a toxic personality. The president he replaced was just a step below him – powerful positions attract toxic personalities just as light bulbs attract moths.

The two most common ways of dealing with toxic personalities is to either (a) punch them in the nose and attempt to get them to back down, or (b) allow them to run all over you in the hopes they will tire of their aggression and move on to a more belligerent opponent. I will address each of these responses in turn.

First, there is truth in the maxim that the only way to deal with a bully is to back him (or her) down. One thing toxic people depend on is that no one is going to call their bluff, to make a stand. Toxic personalities are frequently the result of low self-esteem, and that generally means a deep seated fear. Expose that fear, and the bully will run. In point of fact, Jesus stood up to the bullies in his life, and that demonstrates that sometimes you must stand up and challenge the toxic personality and deny them their self-ordained superiority.

Sometimes.

The danger is that by attempting to make a justifiable stand, all we do is verify in the mind of the toxic personality that the world is against them and it is they who are justified in their belligerence. It is a mighty fine line that we attempt to walk when we decide we must back a bully down. I believe the key to help us understand when and how to do so and maintain our Christian attitude is found in Matthew 5:39. This passage, which has been all too frequently mis-translated (and thereby mis-applied) does not mean that we are never to resist an evil person, but that we are not to resist evil using evil means, or using the policy of “eye for eye” (see Romans 12:17-21 for Paul’s confirmation of this assertion!) If a disciple is to never resist an evil person, then Jesus is the chief sinner – for he resisted evil (and evil people) at every turn. But – and this is the truth that Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – we cannot confront toxic people using our own concoction of toxic poison!

So, there is a truth in the idea that toxic people in our lives must be confronted, but that confrontation must be according to God’s will, and not our own desire for revenge or, even worse, or own sinful desire to be “top dog.” Chances are if a person is acting in a belligerent, toxic manner to you, they are also being abusive in other situations, and there is a very high likelihood that others are at risk. We cannot allow others to be hurt just because we are afraid of confrontation. There is a time and a place to protect ourselves and others that we know are in danger. We must, however, be extraordinarily careful lest we fall into the trap of revenge or one-upmanship.

Which then leads to the second of our options, and that is to just do nothing and let the toxic person have his or her way, and hope that soon he or she will tire of the game and move on to a more worthy opponent. I must admit a certain weakness here, as this is my default response. That is, until I have a belly full of being pushed around, and then I erupt in the most unChristian  of behaviors which really does not serve me – or anyone around me – very well.

Once again, there is Scriptural precedent for following this course of action. Returning to Matthew 5, it is clear that Jesus is suggesting that personal resistance is not the preferred choice of action. Paul repeats that teaching in Romans 12. But, and make no mistake about this, both Jesus and Paul did offer resistance when resistance was not just available, but was also the appropriate response. Jesus did stop the mob from stoning the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did challenge the Pharisees and others as being a bunch of hypocrites and snakes. Jesus did clear the temple of the money-grubbing merchants. Paul did forcibly confront Peter in the matter of withdrawing from the Gentiles. Paul did forcibly confront the Galatian heresy, and he did hand Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan.” Paul had to deal with Alexander the Silversmith, John had to deal with his Diotrephes.

And yet Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, as did Paul, and both surrendered to events that would lead to their deaths because they had first surrendered to the will of God in their lives.

As I see it, and as I am struggling mightily to apply in my life, if the issue is larger than my wants and my feelings and my personal situation, then I must act to confront the toxic person and either remove them or terminate their authority, if possible. If, however, the conflict in my life is nothing more than a conflict of personalities or if the situation appears to only revolve around my perception of my own self-importance, then I am not justified in acting in a toxic manner myself.

Submitting to  one another, loving one another, being genuinely concerned for one another, does not mean, and even cannot mean, that we allow toxic people to control our lives or even worse, to control the church for which Christ died. But let us be so very careful that we do not allow that truth to so color our perception that we fall into Satan’s trap and become the very poison that we so rightly abhor.

Let us serve, and let us lead, by ascending lower.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!

Guitars, the Social Sciences, and Christianity

Pardon me while I take a little stroll down the stream of my consciousness …

I love guitar music – mostly anything that comes from an acoustic guitar. I am not so much enamored with electrics, but that is personal preference. So, I have been playing around with my guitars recently and doing a lot of thinking about theology and life in general. Guitars have that magic with me – kind of transport me into another world altogether.

I say that I “play around” with my guitars because I really do not have the ability to play them – at least not to my satisfaction. In my mind there is a real difference between playing at an instrument and making music on that instrument. To use a slightly different image, anyone can open a can of soup and slap some ham on a couple of pieces of bread and make themselves a lunch. But, it takes real culinary skill to create a feast. I’m a can of soup and ham sandwich kind of player. To paraphrase Rowlf the Dog, I’m no Segovia, but I get by.

So, I’ve been pondering what it is that separates a musician from a soup and sandwich hack. It occurred to me that musicians have the ability to do two things that S&S hacks never quite seem to put together. First, musicians understand music. They just get it – all the modes and scales and circle of fifths and all that. Whether they have been taught, or whether it is simply intuitive (which is my guess), they simply know music.

I don’t.

My daughter knows color. She has a rare gift from her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather – but she is just a natural talent at putting colors together. If I have a question about my wardrobe, I can go to her and she can set me straight in the blink of an eye. I’m lucky to have her around. She has that “gift” for visual art that I am talking about with auditory art. Some people have it. Soup and sandwich hacks don’t.

The other thing true musicians have that I don’t is the knowledge of their instrument. In the hands of a true musician, a guitar or a piano or a flute or a violin simply becomes an extension of their body. In my hands a guitar becomes a weapon of auditory destruction. There is more than just a passing difference.

If you put those two things together you get a true musician. If one or both of those things is missing, well, pull out the can opener and reach for the mustard. I know that if I put my finger on the third fret of the first string I get a certain sound. A musician knows that the next sound he or she needs to hear is a G. He or she also knows there are a whole bunch of other frets on the fretboard that will give them that sound. They make music. I can string together some notes that vaguely resemble music.

If you haven’t  guessed by now, I am in awe of musicians. Especially guitarists who can create pure music. I’m talking Segovia and Kottke and Huttlinger and Atkins and Chapdelaine and Romero and the Pimentels and Denver and Hansen and Parkening and Clark and Campbell and from the ladies – Vidovic and Isbin – and probably a dozen others that have slipped my mind. They are my guitar heroes.

Did I say there was a connection here with theology . . . I think I started out that way. It seems to me that there is one way to be a true human being, and another way that closely resembles the soup and sandwich musical hack. You can study philosophy and psychology and sociology and all the related social sciences, and if you work hard enough and long enough you might come up with something that resembles human life. That is like knowing that if you put your finger on the third fret of the first string you get a boink that sounds sort of what you wanted it to sound like.

On the other hand, you can know Christ, and you can know the human instrument. In that case you know that the next sound you want to hear is a G, and you also know there are virtually limitless methods you can use to arrive at that note. It is the difference between knowing how to open a can of soup and creating a feast. When we come to learn Christ, and come to understand what it is that makes us truly human, we are in the realm of making music, as opposed to just hitting some random notes in the proper succession.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus did not come in order to make humans divine. He came in order to enable humans to become fully human – to regain that which we lost in the garden. That has always had a profound impact on me, and, to be honest, I think Bonhoeffer was on to something.

I think it worth mentioning that Bonhoeffer was also a musician – so talented in fact that his family and friends thought that he had a legitimate chance to become a professional musician in Germany. He also knew how to play the guitar. Music, guitars, and theology – now that is a spiritual feast!

Why settle for just plinking around with some notes in the social sciences when you can play genuine music? The best thing about Christianity is that you do not have to have some inherent skill – all you need to do is learn to trust the master conductor. He will lead you into mastering both the music, and your instrument.

But you have to learn how to submit – and to trust – this conductor. Otherwise, all you will get is a can of soup and a flimsy sandwich.

Headed for Oblivion

A number of circumstances have converged in my life recently and I have (once again, for the millionth time) started playing my guitars. I have been channeling my inner Peter, Paul, and Mary, my inner Statler Brothers, my inner Don Williams, my inner Don McLean, my inner many, many others. Mostly I have just been channeling my inner John Denver. I have been listening to and watching a lot of JDs songs. One song in particular always leaves me with a lump in my throat, its called “What are We Making Weapons For (Let Us Begin).” One brief little snippet of a verse is this,

Now for the first time, this could be the last time.

At the time Denver wrote and recorded the song there was no real certainty but what the “cold” war would suddenly and irreversibly go “hot” with no mechanism for controlling it. For the first time in human history, it was a very real possibility that any “shooting war” would be the last of our civilization.

I don’t think we face that kind of mutually assured destruction today – at least not at the degree of uncertainty that caused Denver to write that song. But, at least in the United States, I do think we are headed for a form of oblivion. How far progressed we are will be a question for historians to determine. I do not hold much optimism for the future, however.

Observers of political history are right to point out that we as a republic have always had our rancorous moments – and just about every national political contest has generated some form of ugliness. In the defense of our current situation, at least we do not settle disagreements with a duel. But that is slight reassurance for what we do to each other.

I can attest that every presidential election – and I mean ever blooming one – since 1980 has been styled as “the most important election in the history of the United States.” Even given some slack for hyperbole, that is really quite a mouthful. Somehow I think the elections of Lincoln and later Franklin D. Roosevelt to have much more significance for our republic than Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump. Maybe all four combined! I would even rate the election of Kennedy to be more significant than Clinton, either Bush, and certainly Obama.

But with each election cycle I am noticing how much more divided the electorate is becoming, how much more unforgiving the contestants are, and how the victors are becoming so much less inclined to set aside their election mentality and settle down to the process of governing. Today it is all campaign, all the time. There simply is no time to govern.

So, maybe for the first time in our republic, this could be the beginning of our journey into oblivion. A nation of 350+ million people cannot continue to exist with the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the passionate and long lasting intolerance that all sides have for each other. The “middle ground” of American politics is evaporating before our very eyes. What has taken its place?

As goes culture, so goes the popular religions within that culture. Which means, dear Christian, that the church of Christ is every bit as threatened by this headlong march into anarchy as is the government. Note: this is not an attack from the outside – it is clearly an internal war. In America in 2018 there is less tolerance of opposing viewpoints regarding Christ, the church, and how we are to relate to one another than in any time in our history.

How we are to come out on the other side of this is still a matter of the future. But, just as one person’s opinion, I do not think that we can deny the division and the passion that accompanies this division. I think I am also correct in suggesting that if we are ever to make any progress in slowing down or eliminating the eventual melt-down of the church, we are going to have to put down our weapons and pick up some towels and some wash basins.

What are we making weapons for? If peace is our vision, let us begin.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.