Archive for narcissism

Responding like Thomas

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.

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On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]               Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]              Ibid.

2015 Lent 26

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by timtrue

Jeremiah 22:13-23

A Letter from the Adolescent Jeremiah

Narcissism, self-absorption, deception, greed;

Another Aston-Martin, another steed.

“I must acquire more,” you say to yourself;

“Another margarita!  Make it top shelf.”

You’ve earned it all, you know, your disciplined ethic.

Or is it too much?  Are you a workaholic?

“Well, you enjoy this life, don’t you, my son?”

My only response is to shrug, then run

When you turn your back, so that you won’t see

The tears rolling down, first one then three.

I’m too timid to tell you what I feel, what you do;

How you won’t spend more than a minute or two

With me each day.  You’re consumed.  You don’t care.

It’s back to your work, to your selfish world where

You shut everyone out, including me,

Your only family now since Mom let you be.

You’ve climbed a ladder of your own making,

Lying, deceiving, earning, cheating,

Thinking only of yourself all the way to the top.

Your life is so ugly.  Guess there’s always Photoshop.

You’re so unlike Grandpa.  He served others.

Never had much, but those were his druthers.

If you ask me, I prefer his way.

Please, Dad, can’t you look away

From your own avarice, just for a day?

2015 Lent 15

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by timtrue

teddy

Jeremiah 5:1-9

Speaking of his people, the Israelites, God tells Jeremiah (among other things), “They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.  Shall I not punish them for these things?” (vv. 8-9).

How do we humans get to this point?  And here I don’t mean just the particular sin of adultery, but acting well-fed and lusty, more like beasts than humans.  How do we get so fixated on our own passions that we lose all sense of rationality–the characteristic above all others that distinguishes humans from beasts?

A few days ago I wrote about an old high school friend who’d recently spent some time in jail for doing things he and I had never dreamed of doing in high school.  How did he get to the point where he either doesn’t value or care about the law–or even himself?

Then two days ago I explored an issue I really don’t know much about but nonetheless recognize as a horrible injustice: human trafficking.  How do humans become so calloused to the dignity of other human beings that they end up perpetrating such injustice?

How do we humans reach a point of such brazen disregard for God and humanity?

And then there’s this: when others do such things, oh, then it’s clearly, definitively, black-and-whitely wrong; but when I engage in them, somehow it’s all okay–or at least not so identifiably wrong.  When my opponent lies it’s, “No way!  Did you hear that malicious slander?”  But when I lie it’s, “Oh, come on; I was just bending the truth a little bit.”

It’s beastly.  It’s lusty.  It’s irrational.

I don’t know how we get to this point, exactly; but we do.  And when we do we have a knack for convincing ourselves that, somehow, in my case it’s not so bad as it seems, really.  It’s my story, we tell ourselves, and so I’m the only one who really understands it.

To which I say, yes, it is your story.  And, yes, you’re in the midst of it.  So it feels justifiable.  But have you tried to remove yourself from it, to step outside of your own narcissism for a few and look at it from an outsider’s point of view?  Maybe then it will look a little less justifiable.  Yes, no one else really understands.  Maybe you don’t really understand either.

Whatever the case, the truly loving person is the one who comes along, sees the wrong, and cares for the wrongdoer anyway.  The loving one sympathizes, sees through the wrong, finds the dignity, and even advocates, arguing on the wrongdoer’s behalf if need be.

Doing so–sympathizing, seeing through and beyond the wrong, advocating–doesn’t mean the loving one condones the sin.  A parent still loves her eight year-old after discovering a stolen teddy bear in her bed.  A loving parent sympathizes and advocates without condoning the act.

But neither does the loving one want harm to come upon the wrongdoer: what loving mother would allow harm to come to her thieving daughter?

Loving discipline requires much wisdom, wisdom that is rational.

And here is the true tension between justice and mercy: wise, loving discipline.

This tension, though, is not a dichotomy: either justice or mercy.  Rather, with love, it’s both justice and mercy.

Surely Jeremiah understood this tension.  Which is why he advocates, even to the point of arguing with God.

Surely we rational humans understand this tension too.  Which is why a loving mother disciplines her daughter appropriately.

So, to bring it back home, how do we get there?  I don’t really know, as I already said.  But maybe, it seems to me anyway, the trouble comes when set aside our self-discipline, when we allow our beastly passions to trump our rational humanity.