Tag Archives: Difficult people

Spineless Christians and the Courage to Be

Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.  John Wayne

“Church people are too nice to each other. They need to grow spines,” a friend said to me the other day. My friend was commenting on the surface relationships, which exist in some faith communities, where we all want to get a long at almost any price and work really hard at being nice. A member’s problematic behavior is tolerated, at the expense of developing a healthy community. Neither the deep needs of the member, nor the needs of the community as a whole, are addressed, and both suffer.

Perhaps you have heard someone comment about a member who is overbearing, controlling, or in some other way hard to take, “Oh that’s the way he is. That’s just how he does things. He means well. Don’t take it personally.”

From my vantage point of thirty years of pastoral ministry and thousands of hours spent listening to church members and pastors in spiritual direction sessions, people do take it seriously, when they are run over, ignored, or otherwise misused. They take it very seriously. I have watched new people walk away and never return after a hurtful encounter. I have seen older members pull back and clergy stymied by power struggles. I have observed churches stuck in relational impasses for years.

Why does no one speak up? Why does a church system seem to harbor and implicitly support bad behavior in the body of Christ? Where did we get the notion that following Jesus meant that we were supposed to be nice? The word nice originates in a Latin word meaning ignorant, literally, not + knowing. In its original use in the thirteenth century nice meant foolish, stupid, or senseless. Today nice means agreeable, pleasant, or satisfactory.

Jane Austin captured the tired, feeble sense of the word in this passage from Northanger Abbey:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.”

When Christianity is reduced to being nice people, it loses its spine and the energetic power of Christ among us.

Many factors may foster spineless Christians. Maybe I am related to the irritating individual or live with him. Perhaps the person has influential friends, or contributes a lot of money. We keep still, because we are afraid of offending others, or being attacked, or rocking the boat.

 We also may be enmeshed as integral parts of a codependent church system in which we find ourselves manipulated by another. Codependency is a psychological condition, which develops when one’s behavior is controlled or determined by another, who is ill with an addiction to a substance or a behavior.

In such cases we walk on eggshells, work behind the scenes, have parking lot conversations, protect, and placate the person in question, while the system stays stuck. We help perpetuate the dysfunction and become sick ourselves.

Most people do not like confrontation. We shy away from speaking the truth as we see it, because it doesn’t seem safe. Instead we swallow our truth, question our own perceptions, try to make do, and from time to time acquiesce to bullies.

Of course, there are times, when we have good reason to be afraid. And, likewise, there may be occasions, when it is best to not confront someone, who contributes to problems in congregational life. There are times to step back, pray, and wait on the Holy Spirit to resolve impasses. There are times for us to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We always will see only part of what is going on, and our particular analysis may be incorrect.

Further, it is important to note that the so-called problem is not with the so-called problem person. The issue is not what we need to do about him or how we can control or manipulate her. The issue is ultimately with us, who are experiencing it. The issue rests with my particular and limited view, and my responsibility and willingness, not to change someone I do not like, but to share my perspective with humility and love in service to the greater community.

My responsibility is to be an expert witness to my reality and experience. Such witness might sound like this: when Susan does this or says that, I feel like this – angry, controlled, sad, hurt, left out, etc.

Such responsible truth-telling with love and humility may open doors of deeper understanding and freedom for everyone.  Fear can grip an individual, a family, or a community in such a way that the fear becomes a lie, which obscures or distorts a larger truth. Such a lie may seriously compromise the mission of a church. Whenever fear and its expression in “being nice,” become a bigger motivator, than love and honesty, something is seriously amiss.

Jesus offered a different answer to a religious establishment and an empire, which used fear, threat of ostracism, and power to control its members. Instead of becoming terrorized, or becoming a terrorist, Jesus “set his face like flint,” as he turned to Jerusalem to look fear in the eye, calmly grounded in a sense of something larger, more loving, more powerful, and stronger than fear, which would sustain him and the whole world with him.

And then he said to those who watched, “Follow me.”

What would the world look like, if we were motivated by faith and love, instead of fear?  The fear response, lodged in the brain stem, is primal and necessary to survival. Yet what does fear motivate us to do – circle the wagons, huddle together, adopt a world view of scarcity, and become rigid, defensive, offensive, and suspicious?  Such postures hinder generosity and imagination. Faith, which requires trust in the unseen, is blocked by fear. Without faith, the flow of the Spirit through hearts in love with God is obstructed.

I am not sure that we know how to speak our truth and disagree without resorting to anger, blame, and attack. I am not sure we really believe there is a common ground beyond our dissent. Deeper truth is revealed as smaller truths are shared with courage and love. Discovering God’s will for our communities requires all parties to surrender to something greater than their individual points of view. We need, both to hear individual perspectives, and to bow to a larger more encompassing vision, which asks something heroic of each one of us; namely, to give up our way, even our lives, for the larger good of the whole.

I believe there are Christians with spines and with the courage to be Christian, who create spaces where the bullied and the bullies, the controlling and those who feel controlled, the powerful and those without power come together in mutual appreciation and surrender to the One beyond fear who offers abundance and sanctuary to all her children.

We all need to hear and be heard, to listen and to speak. The Holy Spirit with her bright wings dwells in the naked soul of each member of the body of Christ. We dare not silence any voice. It only takes a few divinely inspired souls to change the course of history or the climate of a local church.

May we all find the courage to set our faces like flint against the ghostly shroud of fear, which diminishes us and turns our spines to Jell-O.  Then let’s saddle up and head out toward the Reign of God with possibility, love, freedom, and justice for all.

Somebody Driving You Nuts? Try This

I am indebted to insufferable stinkers for a good deal of the understanding I possess. The people I dislike the most, usually have the most to teach me.

I enjoy nearly everyone I meet, but I have come across some corkers. I think this is because God has so much to teach me about myself and love. When I hit a learning plateau, the Almighty with a sly grin sends a new teacher into my life to help me over the hump.

I work in a profession where my job description is to love everyone, including my enemies. Such an expectation holds one’s nose to the grindstone, as the Holy Spirit sets out to polish and refine her servants in the friction of human relationships.

I am grateful that love is deepened in us in this way, because if I could have discounted the difficult, or avoided the boring I would be far more difficult and boring myself. So I give thanks for all the needy, self-centered, mean-spirited, self-pitying, abrasive, annoying, and crazy, scary people, whom Christ places before me to welcome and love.

Without these opportunities I never would have discovered how much I have in common with such lack luster, irritating souls. I would have felt no responsibility to change my impression of them or curiosity about the source of my aversion. I would have missed out on the wealth of gifts they bring to me in their outstretched arms and infuriating ways.

I think you know the sort of people I am talking about: the ones who enrage you, disgust you, upset you, or frighten you. Among these are people who are so easy to dislike, that you may take a perverse joy in dwelling on their shortcomings and talking with friends about just how awful they are.

Forbearance is a word seldom heard these days, except in its legal sense as an agreement to delay a mortgage foreclosure. As the word appears in the Greek scriptures, to forbear means to refrain from doing something and refers to patient endurance and self-control. Forbearance is the virtue of bearing with another’s sins and weaknesses. Forbearance is more than refraining from saying what is on the tip of your tongue, rolling your eyes, or wringing someone’s neck. Love enables us to bear with one another;  and disciplined prayer and self-examination help us to love.

Sometimes my negative response to another may involve my unconscious projection of some unattractive attribute of myself, which I have not fully accepted. We tend to see our own flaws more clearly, when they show up in others. The offending party mirrors my own vexing habit. Or perhaps the negative feelings I carry for some other person in my life become attached to the person before me, who has some resemblance to my nemesis, and the unwitting soul must endure my unconscious dislike of him.

Or maybe – I just do not know the whole story.

He stopped me at the end of the meeting. He was the kind of person who, if you were in a hurry, you might duck down a hallway to avoid one of his tedious monologues. The man took forever to get to the point and gave you a whole lot of details that didn’t seem all that important and led to long, winding digressions.

As I listened, I felt the impatience and irritation rising up in me. Yet, because I was called to love and accept him, I took a breath, prayed and listened. I watched my internal irritation, wondering what it might have to tell me about the man and about myself.

I began to see that what I was feeling was instructive and likely how others felt listening to him. How hard that must be for him. What was going on here? Why was it so hard for him to be clear and concise?

I sensed in myself anxiety. Was he anxious too? Yes, I could see that now. He was anxious to be heard, fearful of being dismissed, of being devalued, or ignored. I recognized that needy feeling to be approved and valued in myself.

Who had made him feel this way? Where did it come from in me? That was when, in a flash, I glimpsed his suffering and all I wanted to do was give this man my total attention and acceptance. I realized that it didn’t really matter what he was saying as much as receiving someone’s caring attention.  There might be a time later to explore the roots of his digressions. For now I wanted him to know how it felt to be heard without worrying the person you were talking to was eager to walk away.

Compassion rearranged my calendar, and I had all the time in the world to listen.

Rudy Rasmus is the pastor of Houston’s, St. John’s Downtown, a church with one of the most culturally diverse memberships in the country. Speaking to the United Methodist Kansas East Conference in 2010, Rudy said, “The kingdom is big enough for all the people you are afraid of, or think are wrong, or that you can’t love.”

Of the 9000 members at St. John’s 3000 are or were formerly homeless. Part of Rasmus’ success is due to his ability to help his members learn to move past judgment to compassion. In his address last year he asked his audience to practice compassion. His exercise went like this:

With attention on the person [you are judging] say to yourself:

Just like me this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair in his or her life.

Just like me this person is trying to avoid suffering in his or her life.

Just like me this person is learning about life.

Then he shared what his Auntie used to tell him, “Rudy, people only do what they know to do.” The safer and more valued a person feels in my presence, the more they share of themselves and the more compassionate I become, as I grow in understanding and appreciation of the child of God before me.

The words of Oswald Chambers have helped me over and over to listen, to be curious, and open my heart to another, even when I don’t feel like it:

“Of every person there is always one more fact of which you know nothing.”

Put up with each other,
and forgive anyone who does you wrong, 
just as Christ has forgiven you. Colossians 3:13

Disclaimer: Any resemblance here to former or current church members, clients, friends, relatives, or dear readers of this blog is purely coincidental.
All the corkers I have known are now dead or live on Mars.