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!

My Love Affair With Books

A couple (or more) posts back I asked for a response to the question, “Who is (are) your favorite books/authors?” While the response to that question did not fully show up here, on another site it created quite a conversation – and I loved every response. A comment was made that preachers must be readers of books. I cannot tell you how much I agree with that statement.

Our current infatuation with “social media” is destroying the American brain. I know some may think that is a harsh condemnation, but I firmly believe it to be so. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and even blogs (yes, even this one) have finished warping the American attention span that started being whittled away with the 30 minute sitcom on TV. I remember reading the thoughts of a research guru who suggested that if an author cannot make his or her argument in the first “x” number of pages of a book (I forget the exact number but in was in the teens), that millennials and even some in the other age groups would not bother to finish reading the book. Even in this space, once I get up to about 1,000 words in a post I get nervous, because I know that people will not bother to get to the end of the post.

That is just so sad. When I was young I remember people making fun of the Readers Digest condensations of such books like War and Peace, Gone With the Wind and even Moby Dick. Imagine now – even a condensation would be too long!

I love books, and I fear for the time that we will not be able to follow extensive arguments – arguments that stretch over chapters, not just pages. Some thoughts just cannot be summarized in 15 pages. And if you have to limit the size of the book to 125 pages because the audience just cannot follow an argument any longer than that — well, what is going to happen to our educational future?

Imagine Beethoven being told he had to produce an entire Symphony in only ten pages of score. Imagine Shakespeare being told that if his plays lasted more than 30 minutes he could not keep his audience’s attention. Psalm 119 runs 176 verses long – ponderous, repetitious, magisterial.

I have had a life long love affair with books. It continues to this day. C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that there is not a book long enough nor a cup of tea big enough to suit him. Where would we be without C.S. Lewis?

Thanks to all who chimed in on my “Who Rocks Your World” question. It was deeply gratifying to know that so many folks are reading so many books – in extremely diverse subject matters and with a wide variety of authors.

Do yourself a favor and dig out an old book and brew yourself a big cup of tea (or coffee) and stretch your brain for a while. You will be glad you did!

(and this post took far less than 1,000 words!)

The New Normal

We human beings function the best when we have at least a relatively certain belief that we can understand our past and anticipate our future. That belief is called “normal,” and without it our lives would be chaotic. No sentient being can exist in chaos for long – that is why soldiers and other individuals who face catastrophe and disorder for long periods of time are permanently scarred. Our psyches were just not made to endure severe turmoil or even mild disorder for long periods of time.

When something radical happens in our life we typically adjust – the “old” normal is replaced by the “new” normal. Most of this happens without much thought, and typically it is either benign or even positive. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up their cell phone or tablet.

Sometimes, however, the new “normal” is anything but healthy or even benign. New normals can be insidious, malignant, destructive. I believe that as a society we have reached a new “normal” in societal relationships, and it is anything other than healthy.

  • Item: a police officer mistakenly shoots a young man. Within days – seemingly within hours, people declare her to be guilty of MURDER and demand that she face the most violent of repercussions possible.
  • Item: an appellate judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, and AFTER THE LEGAL INQUIRY INTO HIS PAST IS CONCLUDED a letter is produced in which a woman accused him of sexual assault OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. Immediately he is condemned in the court of popular opinion, and many demand his professional career be terminated.
  • Item: a professional tennis player is admonished by an official for actions that are contrary to the rules of her sport, and over the course of the next few hours she repeated berates the official, throws a temper tantrum in which she destroys her racket, and then screams obscenities at the official. She is steadfastly defended by many for the apparent reason that she is (a) a female and should not have to abide by the rulings of the court official and also because she is (b) a minority and therefore has had to overcome more difficulties in life than a racial majority would have had to overcome. Never mind that her opponent (who was defeating her at the time) was also a racial minority, and a female who WAS abiding by the rulings of the same court official.

These are all examples of the “new normal” by which we get to condemn (and metaphorically execute) individuals on the basis of some bizarre Facebook or Twitter revelation, or that a lifetime of hard work and dedication can be destroyed by an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim of wrongdoing that took place over three decades in the past, or that deviant, miscreant behavior can be tolerated and even celebrated so long as the perpetrator can claim some minority status or some real or perceived handicap.

I have a name for the new normal. It’s called anarchy, chaos, mob rule. If there is no straight line by which we can measure truth and falsehood, proper and improper behavior, then everyone will eventually become a savage. Societies, no more than individuals persons, can long exist in the face of a moral vacuum. We are living today in the reality of that moral vacuum.

Ours is not the first culture to experience this vacuum. Moral degeneracy has been a common feature of the human race. It’s just that for the past couple of hundred years the deviancy away from a universal moral plumb-line has been easy to detect – the American slavery experience, the Nazi regime, the Rwanda genocide. Today the plumb-line has been so bent and twisted that we (as a culture) no longer can recognize truth, integrity, honesty – or even beauty for that matter.

It is precisely at this moment that the truth of the gospel needs to shine the most brilliantly. Christians MUST accept that if we are to bear the cross and wear the name of disciple of Christ we are going to be labeled as counter-cultural, bizarre, weird. If the basic understanding of morality and truth is a lie, then those who hold up the truth of the gospel will be considered deviant. This is why Jesus – the very prince of peace – was executed for being a treasonous malefactor. There is no escaping this reality. We as disciples of Christ can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the world will love us just because we use the adjective “Christian” in our name. If Jesus the messiah was killed because his world hated him, how can we even attempt to justify having our world love us?

If  the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

I have grown weary, and have now even openly rejected, what I consider to be “weather vane” Christianity. These so-called “Christians” and the churches they populate function like a wind-sock at an airport. They point to the direction where society is headed, and then work furiously to make sure they are out in front so that they can appear to be “leaders” in the movement. They are loved by the culture they identify with, and they receive the commendation of those who have created that culture. As Jesus said, they have received their reward.

The new normal is not going to end up looking like anything most of us are familiar with. I’m not even sure what the eventual “normal” will look like. But I can see that as our culture continues to eviscerate itself, there will not be much left in it that will even be worth keeping. If there is no universal truth, if there is no common decency, if there is no consideration of authority, if there is no fundamental acceptance of a person’s dignity, if mere innuendo and accusation can take the place of verifiable facts – then where will we as a culture end up?

There is a place where the light of God’s kingdom can shine. There is a place where decency and honor can be practiced – and where forgiveness and grace abound. There is a place where sin is frankly and openly dealt with and repentance, confession, and restoration is the standard. It can be found in the church – the assembly, the gathering – of God’s redeemed people. It will increasingly be viewed with distrust and suspicion – and even hatred – and for that very reason its members must never, never, never surrender to the scandalous attacks of its opponents.

Our savior ascended by descending to the death on a cross. May we, like him, climb higher by descending lower.

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.

Top Authors – Who Rocks Your World?

Just a random thought today – seeing as how it is Friday and no one is paying attention anyway —

I got to thinking about the authors that have really influenced me – maybe not convinced me of the truth of every one of their thoughts, but the authors that invariably make me think deeply about their subject. I came up with 7 (a good biblical number) based on the number of books in my library, and by the significance of the author’s ability to cause me to reflect on my own beliefs and to think holistically.

Here are my seven: (well, I will actually throw in an eighth, but with a caveat)

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (if you know me, this was a no-brainer)
  2. C.S. Lewis (I am continually blown away by Lewis’ logic and penetrating insights)
  3. Thomas Merton (a contemplative’s contemplative; profound insights into human nature and Christian theology)
  4. Henri Nouwen (a poetic theologian, or a theological poet)
  5. N.T. Wright (a scholar who can write so I can understand him – a rare trait; has just exploded my understanding of many points theological)
  6. Os Guinness (just learning more about Guinness – but right up there with Bonhoeffer for penetrating intellect and Merton and Nouwen for powerful prose)
  7. John Stott (had to put a preacher/commentator on the list)

(And for my wild card – Glen Stassen, although with Dr. Stassen his influence has been primarily in the field of ethics, specifically in relation to the Sermon on the Mount and Christian ethics)

By the way, I have to explain why no authors from my own heritage are on this list – primarily it is because I already approach the subjects with which they interact in a posture of basic agreement. But, for sheer brilliance and depth of intellect, no one can even hold a candle to Everett Ferguson. I would be hopelessly lost in my journey in the Restoration Movement without such guides as Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen. In terms of historical knowledge and critical analysis, the peak of Mt. Olympus belongs to David Edwin Harrell, Jr. There, I think I have covered all of my bases.

So, who makes your list? Why? Any thoughts about new voices on the horizon? (Six out of my top eight are deceased, hmmm. Why is there such a dearth of theologians who can write anything more than vapid pablum today?)

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.