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A lot of people are talking about narcissism these days.  But what are they talking about?  What is narcissism, really?  What does it mean?

Narcissism in lay psychology terms is a way of thinking, relating, and being in the world that is trapped in selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-absorption.  It is a form of arrested development.  Narcissists are chronically immature.  They never grew up inside.  A certain part of their brain never developed the capacity to relate to others as whole people, to see others as worthy and complex in their own right (beyond superficiality), to really love others in reciprocal, mutual, and personality enhancing ways.  Narcissists are born and made, with nature and nurture influences that allow the emergence of a creature arrested in self-love.

That being said, what’s the buzz about narcissism?  Mostly, we run into the problem of narcissism in the attempt to develop satisfying, long-term, meaningful relationships with them.  A true narcissist lives in a self-sustaining universe.  A narcissist can feed off the admiration of other people or even create crowds of admirers in his or her own imagination.  This is all the love that is necessary; it is self-created, self-sustaining, and self-fulfilling.  People who actually want to be in relationship with other people have trouble with narcissists.  “People who need people” may be the luckiest people in the world, but they’re very unlucky if someone they love, need, or desire is narcissistic.

So, again, we get back to the question: what is narcissism?  It’s been called pathological self-love and selfishness in volumes of clinical descriptions that tell the story of unraveled health, hearts and homes, resulting from being in the dance of intimacy with a narcissist.  But what does a narcissist look like?  Often better than the rest of us, so it might help to look more at the way they approach and live in the world.

Ways of Thinking

Some brave behavioral scientists  have tried to describe and intervene, even treat or cure narcissism.  Here are some “big chunk ideas” from their findings, which can help us straightforward, relational folks get more of an idea of what we’re talking about.  About the ways a narcissist thinks: two main descriptors– grandiosity and entitlement:

  • Grandiosity is the tendency for the narcissist to think more highly of themselves than they have deserved, earned, or merited. The way a narcissist thinks of themselves is like a hot air balloon.  It can get very big, awe-inspiring, and colorful.  Because narcissists think this way, they can often get other people to believe in their grandiose schemes.  Like P. T. Barnum, Cleopatra, Donald Trump, Madonna, and Napoleon, ordinary people with extraordinary attributes, ambition, and drive can pump up their lives into stories of true magnitude and scope.  But for most narcissists, their grandiosity doesn’t match their accomplishments.  Like the characters in the Wizard of Oz, we often feel cheated and betrayed when we’ve been taken in by the narcissist’s show, illusions and ideals.
  • Entitlement is the feeling that one has been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, that they deserve or are entitled– that is, they own the title– to whatever they believe that they deserve.  The term entitlement comes from nobility, where if you have a title, you have not only the name that elevates you above the masses, but also the deeds to the land, which makes you special and gives you power.  Entitled thinking is just like this: “I am special.  I deserve special treatment, attention, privileges, and favors.  I am superior to others.  There is something about me that should be respected and inspire deference.”  We have all encountered entitled people, whether at an airport counter, driving on the freeway, or just sharing living space with someone who thinks they deserve the biggest room, the best service, the first place in line.  Let it be known this is the way a narcissist thinks.

Any of us can act in grandiose or entitled ways in specific moments and situations.  Sometimes, our entitlement and grandiosity matches reality.  For the narcissist, though, their way of thinking is just this: “I am more important than you.”  It is VERY hard to challenge this way of thinking.  It is even more difficult to live with it.

Ways of Relating

Narcissism is a way of relating in the world.  Two of the most difficult attributes of a narcissist in their interpersonal schema is lack of empathy and an inability to see their part in interpersonal conflicts.

  • Lack of empathy, for a true narcissist, means that they really don’t have empathy.  They lack appropriate feeling for other people, or sometimes any feeling at all for the feelings of others.  This is a really freaky thing to experience in an intimate relationship.  Feelings are the currency of love relationships, accompanied by warmth, listening, reflecting, sympathy, and understanding.  Narcissists can be very emotionally winsome and persuasive people.  But the only person they really feel for is themselves.  They are missing the nerve endings that react to the feelings and needs of others in a  resonate way.  Narcissists often can appear more empathetic than truly empathic people.  This is why you can feel you’re in a sci-fi movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when you realize the person you committed your life to only feels for themselves and doesn’t feel for you at all.
  • Narcissists have an inability to own their part in interpersonal conflict.  A narcissist cannot be at fault.  They are unable to own or take responsibility for creating interpersonal tension, anger, and pain.  This is pronounced when they have been the major catalyst, provoker, and wrong-doer.  For example, a narcissist will drive into another car’s lane and then blame the other person for the collision.  This is related to their thinking because the narcissist doesn’t seem themselves as having made the driving error.  This type of brain truly believes that everyone else is to blame.  It’s part of the defensive structure.  As you can imagine, people like this are difficult to live with and there is no working through or resolving arguments in a mutually satisfying way because “it’s always your fault.”

Ways of Being in the World

Narcissists have a way of being in the world that primarily takes care of themselves.  They see the world as an opportunity to get things for themselves– money, status, love, possessions– or as an obstacle to getting these things for themselves.  The narcissist’s way of being in the world is self-centered.  It is all about me.  Like a five-year-old child, the narcissist feels they are the king or queen of all they can grasp or survey.  Other people are either subjects, servants, courtesans or external threats.

These are qualities that most of us have identified in one person or another.  I believe we all can be narcissistic at times, but hopefully, we can be flexible and respond in different ways with correction, awareness, and the desire to grow and change.  The narcissist is trapped in these ways of thinking, relating, and being in the world.  They don’t usually see it or know a better way.  Personally, I believe all people were made for growth.  That it is embedded in our DNA and inherent in our living.  Maybe we can see narcissists as more stuck on themselves and in themselves than the average bear and develop some empathy and compassion for their plight.

Being the self-conscious people that we are, some of us may wonder if we have the characteristics of narcissism.  Here’s a simple test:

Do you ever wonder if you are narcissistic?  Circle one:
a.)   Never.
b.)   Seldom.
c.)   Occasionally.
d.)   Often.
e.)   Always.

If you answer A or E, you are probably narcissistic.
If you answered B or D, you may have narcissistic characteristics.
If you answered C, you’re off the hook.  But if you feel smug about that, then put yourself back in the camp with the rest of us.

A quick group test for narcissism is to a play a game of Monopoly.  There are several narcissistic characteristics that emerge in this simple game.  For example, we can observe who wins, how winning is negotiated, how a person loses (most people will quit while they’re ahead), what is bought, and how the competition unfolds.  But, if you like Monopoloy, you are probably already (at least a little) narcissistic.  It’s all in the name.  It might as well be called I Want It All.
For a more in-depth analysis, I will outline and illustrate the defining characteristics of narcissism as an aberration—that is, a ‘bend’, a distortion—in interpersonal development.  It is a deviation from normal social development that distorts perceptions of ourselves and others, making it difficult to really love.
Of course, it is much easier to identify these qualities in other people.  None of us see ourselves accurately in the first place.  We see “through a mirror dimly”.  But, on top of that, one of the core characteristics of narcissism is to attribute virtue to the self and blame other for relational problems.  Narcissists shield themselves from feeling responsible for the damage they cause, casting their guilt and shame and problems on others and staying above the fray when conflicts or difficulties arise.  So if you are a narcissist, everybody else has a problem.
Narcissists do not usually read self-improvement books.  They do not voluntarily seek treatment or correction.  They usually project their pain and problems onto others who will carry these burdens for them.  These “designated others” are the ones who experience the psychological, emotional, and relational distress that the narcissist defends against.  Depressed, dependent, or neglected children, ex-wives, mothers, coworkers, and underlings are usually the ones that seek help for themselves and their beloved narcissists.
I gained awareness of narcissism as a silent, pervasive, relational killer (as well as a treatable disorder) through the back door, working with women in transitional trauma after multiple moves following their husband’s career changes or corporate climbing.  I saw the Heinz-57 variety of anxiety, depression, and affective disorders in the context of marital and family therapy.  The women asked the question, “What is wrong with me?” or “What can I do to change?”  Yet, underlying this initial cry for help, the deeper questions emerged: “Why don’t I experience love from my husband/boss/father/partner/mother/friend/daughter/son?” and “Why am I starving for compassion and interest?”  and “Why am I dying in this relationship and dying inside?”
The desperation observed in these clients didn’t seem rooted in their personality or lack of coping skills.  In fact, many of these patients were unusually adaptive: intelligent, caring, capable, and warm.  Their symptoms seemed reactive, clustered around intense, longstanding relationships with someone with diagnosably narcissistic traits.
Narcissists often want their wives and children to be “fixed”, discreetly, by the doctor.  Other narcissists leave the scene of the crime, with a string of casualties in their wake who will do anything to seek healing.
From these experiences, and subsequent psychological detective work, came the first rule of thumb for determining whether or not someone is a narcissist:  Other people will be able to see your narcissism better than they can.  Other people experience you in painful ways that you don’t experience.  Other people even carry the symptoms that the narcissist defends against: the fear, the rejection, the guarded or angry reactions, the withering signs.
Here is the principle: other people know our narcissism before we know about it.  This is an affront in itself because narcissism likes to keep us thinking we’re top of things, in the know.
However, while narcissism defends the narcissist from painful truths, faults, and shortcomings, it doesn’t blind other people to those problems.
Therefore, a good place to start looking for our own narcissistic inclinations is to look at the kind of interpersonal relationships we have.  Who is close enough to us to challenge our way of thinking and relating?  Who can teach us, knock us down, and build us up?  Who do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to?  From whom do we seek correction?
If you want to know, genuinely, if you’re narcissistic—that is, if your way of being in the world is selfish and self-centered—there is one thing to do: ask the people around you.  If you’re really brave, ask the people closest to you, the ones you’d be afraid to ask.  As it’s Good Friday, I can’t help but think of Jesus, who is Lord of lords and God of gods, bearing the brunt of our projected guilt and shame, being berated, betrayed, criticized, criminalized, and crucified.  This is an image we reject rather than receive.  So how do you know you’re a Christian narcissist: are you fascinated with the person of Jesus Christ?  Are you drawn and open to the Jesus of the gospels, to the Lamb of God that was slain and took upon himself the iniquities of us all? I know I struggle with this.  And yet somehow, this is where all the freedom from mySelf is found.

Humility

It is a strange September.  I was slated to be in China on a long anticipated diplomatic tour as part of a handpicked family mental health delegation.  The terrorist attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers grounded all plans, including our flight to Shanghai.  Instead of being wined and dined in grand style, my world traveler and professional identity rejoined, I find myself with two weeks cleared in my schedule.  There are piles of paperwork glaring at me, minutia to clean up, and my arms are submerged to the elbow in dirty dishes, real ones with crusty corners and food slime, accumulation in the sink that someone else was going to do.

I’m somber as I watch the rescue workers sifting through the soggy rubble on CNN.  I anticipate the stock market tumble.  I stare at the images with incredulity and horror and consider how all of our lives have been changed forever.  I feel personally bent out of shape and lost.  I’d rather be on an adventure in Asia than facing two weeks of tedious impotence as our nation tries to sort itself out in the face of disaster.  The newscasters are reeling as they try to get a handle on reality, up close and personal with the stench of suffering and evil int he world.  The focal point of my day looks like it will be walking to visit my mother in the nursing home.

I don my Patagonia, strap weight to my wrists, and storm down the wooded interurban trail.  Dappled with green and sun-gilded shine on this fresh autumn day, the blackberries hang heavy and fragrant; the trees arch their tunnels of safety and invitation.  It is a kindness that the trail is still and empty of other foot-traffic.  I am alone in a moving sanctuary.  I play exultant praise music on my portable CD player and thrash my arms through the air; fierce unfocused energy posing as power walking.  The week’s events crash in on my temples, sinews, and tendons.  I am crying now, running and yelling out, “Damn, damn, damn it all!  What’s it all about?  Why even try?”  I am raw emotion.  I am spent anticipation.  I am frustrated fury… with Ron Cannoli and a black gospel choir singing somewhere in the background about the power of God.  Eventually, I get to the Mt. Baker Care Center where my mother is regrouping after a stroke.

The wheelchair brigade is in the morning room, lined up in rows four deep around the television set.  The news i on, but most of this audience is sleeping through the conflict, their eyes unseeing or their heads bowed as in church.  I pick out my mother’s white head and pull her chair around for a visit.  “Hi mom.”  I’m sweaty and my armbands stink in a way that I notice even in a nursing home.  My mom doesn’t have much to say but her eyes are bright and she’s glad to see me.  I feel that mixture of gratitude, awkwardness, and deep sorrow creeping around the ankles of our conversation like a tide pool.

Suddenly another hunched form arouses itself from the fleet and cries out, “Take me home.  I want to go home!”  I ignore her and focus on mom.  “You!  Take me home!”  This woman is looking at me but I dismiss it as just another demented outcry to punctuate the stilted social milieu of the day room.  A few white wooly heads bob up and look at her or me indifferently.  Twisted little woman won’t let it go.  “Please take me hoooome.  You!  Help me.  Help me please!”  She’s swiveled around and has me pegged as her savior.

She’s sobbing in her hands and gesturing pitifully.  After a long minute of this, I excuse myself to find a nurse.  He comes back with me to the room and wheels the lady out, clucking consoling comments.  She says ‘thank you’ as she’s pushed through the door.

My mother is smiling.  It’s a cute, crooked smile.  She had a stroke that immobilized her left side, but the facial muscles on her right side that work are positively beaming.  “What are you smiling at?”  I ask her.  “You helped that old lady,” she says.  My eighty-three year old mother, who has lost all interest in everyone around her, is pleased that I responded to a senile woman’s cries.

I feel conflicted as I walk the loop back home.  I crave interesting conversation, beauty, stimulating people, freedom, creativity, regeneration, and action.  I’m impatient with death and decay.  I dislike sickness, oldness, slowness, frailty, and pain.  I like getting on with things.  Yet despite our aversion to these things, much of the stuff of life involved picking through debris, sifting through the rubble piles heaped around and in us, hoping to find something alive and breathing underneath it all.  Aren’t we all on search and rescue efforts of some sort, staving off mortality, challenging entropy, looking for something, someone?  I don’t want to be philosophizing.  I don’t want to be here.  I want to be in China.  I don’t want to be on anybody’s salvage crew, including my own.

The lady that sweeps the sidewalks on the route through the park says hi.  She asks about my day.  She has flat features, skewed eyes, and a bristle of read hair that looks like it was cropped by a lawn mower.  I think she’s mentally deficient, talking with slurred speech and sweeping with jerky mechanical movements.  Occasionally, we exchange greetings as I march through her territory on my aerobic missions.  I’ve reflected on who hired her to sweep sidewalks and if it’s some publicly funded program or if she just does it on her own for something to do.  In all honesty, I haven’t given her much thought.

Today, she wants to visit.  “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she calls out.  “Looks like you’re doing a good job,” I throw back over my shoulder as I pass her by.  “I try,” she keeps talking.  I turn around and look at her.  Catching my breath, I stop to listen.  She wants to discuss the complications of sweeping the sidewalk with all the trees dropping leaves, different cars going by.  Seems like there’s always new dirt or wrappers, sticks of other things falling on the ground, but she does her best to keep things tidy.  “The sun’s out today,” she says.  There’s not much more to converse about so she hunkers down to her sweeping and I take off.  “It was nice talking to you,” she calls after my retreating figure.  I look back at her and she’s smiling like my mother.

She’s so simple, unsettling another layer of detritus covering my complicated questions for self-fulfillment, with her bristly broom that matches her hair.  I feel self-center and off-base.  Crusted over.  It’s not about me.  I press on through the park as if more vigorous exercise might realign what is left of my will.  I want to fly away.  Instead, I feel like I’m rummaging blindly for an egg in the ashes.  Dust to dust.  From dirt and rubble we come, and to dirt and rubble we return.  I hope in the remains of the day to uncover more than just fragments.  I pray for a living soul, intact.

This was written several years ago when the kids were young and we only had one dog. I brought it out after a long week-end away in the desert for sun therapy. . . another package-deal. 45th floor. Penthouse suite with a 180 degree view.  Champagne taste on a burrito budget. I wonder. Do we get a bigger boost from  grandiosity or from vitamin D?

Each of us has one: our own little kingdom, a place or a lifestyle in which we reign.  The place where I rule.  Popular culture assumes and prescribes that we establish our own personal domain. We speak the language of personal sovereignty: your sphere of influence, my personal space, your territory, her baby, his arena of control, my side of the bed.

This afternoon, I was gazing our a large– really LARGE– picture window overlooking the wetlands of Batiquitos Lagoon.  A panoramic vista spread out below me over the jutted crags and crests along the Southern California coastline with the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the distance.  Brilliant light and colors dance in the midday sun across distant hills, glistening rooftops, and verdant topography as far as the eye can see.

Castles used to be placed on hills like these.  Only kings and rulers had the privilege of support staff, time for reflection, and the rush of power to rule over all they could see.  Now?  It’s it’s any body’s game. The land-developers, investors industrialists, inheritors and influencer to lottery winners, reality TV stars, and car salesmen. The panoramas belong to all comers in the new nobility of the dot.com age who can purchase the pinnacle and reign supreme in their own little kingdoms.  Even lowly commoners, like our family, can seize upon a moment of splendor.  It’s called the package deal.

As I stand at the window and look out, I feel heady.  I feel the rush.  It’s not vertigo.  It’s grandeur.

Our house is being renovated.  It has been inhabited for the last six months by twelve to twenty workpeople who come at random times and make random gestures of construction or destruction– building acts known as “a remodel.”  Our meager foursome is outnumbered, even if we count the dog.  We fled with the shirts on our backs, as most of our possessions lay under plastic tarps for who-knows-how-long.  So we arrive.  Four precious days, away, to regain the semblance of sanity.  Here I am.

We are vacationing at an exquisite resort.  It’s classic and classy.  We were granted four-days for the price of one.  Hop an airplane on a super-saver ticket and voila– we’re transported in space and time to lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Our children quickly accommodate to valet everything, poolside Shirley Temples with a slice of lemon, and attendants to bring toys and games at their whim.  Meanwhile, I survey our view (as if it’s really ours).

The grandeur I feel is not just awe at the magnitude of nature.   That would dwarf me.  That type of encounter with creation could reduce me, put me in my place.  I might even feel humility akin to King David looking up at the night sky, crying out to the Grandest One, “Who am I that you are mindful of me?”

No, my experience is not about awe and wonder.  It’s about what this perch on the landscape does to me.  I feel a sense of proprietary privilege, that I’m up here, looking down, and over, and beyond.   The world is literally at my feet.  I’m above it all,  above the limitations of the masses.  Cars the size of gnats flit so far off that they barely register on my radar.  Other people are too small to see, to be bothered with.   I am Queen of all I survey.  This is the rush.

It’s the existential high.  The power surge.  The glimpse of glory.  It is a fantasy but you’d insult me if you gave it that label.

I turn from the window to my palace on the mountainside.   Plush interiors, massive ceilings, gleaming hand-carved wood, and polished natural stone frame the window.  Inside this castle, we are catered to.  John, one of our many gracious hosts, informs us that we are classified as VIPs (level-four!), with the right to purchase level-1 status through property ownership.  We are offered a one-month timeshare that costs more than most homes. It appeals to us.  This is the best of the best.  Creme de la creme.  Top drawer.  Highest percentile.  “That’s the kind of people we are,” they tell us.  We like that.  We agree.  And over dinner, we deliberate whether we could sell our children on the internet to get seed money to join.

We Christians  jump on the bandwagon.  Everyone is talking about their kingdoms, their “ministry”.  Our ministry, my ministry, my own ministry, whose ministry? We plot out and position our territory, quote demographics that describe local market share and target our seeker-sensitive audience.

Where discussions might center around the global eternal ministry of Jesus Christ, Head of the The Church (with a capital ‘C’), we now perceive ministries as specialized and personalized.  They are often comparative and competitive.  Clergy stake out their congregations more by the rightness of fit with a social group or socio-economic strata than by listening to the voice of God.  They converse freely about “my church, my congregation, our specific missions, and our mission statement.  Vocational clergy compare and contrast their options and often make their “ministry” choices based on geography, salary, or job descriptions.  “Ministries and calls” are understood through assessment and profiling the career-oriented individual’s ambitions, vocational goals, or personal areas of comfort and competency rather than seeking the king of the kingdom whocalls us to follow.

Our own little kingdoms. A 25,000 member congregation boasting 5 campuses. A historic downtown founders church, a national treasure. The ministry to the homeless of  Shoeless Joe, the revelation of  Sarah Seer , the media empire of Paul and Paula Praise. We stake  out our turf, our domain, claim to fame, our own higher ground.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God & his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)  As usual, Jesus changes not only the rules but the whole topography. So where is our place in His Kingdom?

“Never give the role of archbishop to someone who aspires to be archbishop.”  — advice of a 16th century church leader upon his succession

Client Case Files: The Preacher

Pastor Pete is in an existential crisis.  He’s 47 years old.  His kids need to be put through college.  His elders are at each other over worship styles, spiritual gifts, and who gets to make the carpet decisions for the new narthex.  There are financial pressures surrounding what he’s come to call the Church Building Cam-pain-in-the-butt and the zoning commission has delayed approval one more time.  The deacons are slacking at their jobs.  To job that, just when he needs comfort, his wife is strangely distant, somehow dissatisfied with her traditional roles: coordinating Vacation Bible School, playing piano for the worship team, leading coffee chats for women’s ministries.  Important roles.  What does she want?  He knows what he’s not getting and prospects look grim with the impasse between them over the past few months.  (Might as well have been a priest, he thinks.)

Pete’s church is pushing the 600-member ceiling and has been for the past five years.  Attrition always seems to match new membership.  Even though the Forward in Faith consultant said this could be cured with a 1000-capacity worship center and a seeker-sensitive Saturday night services, volunteers are harder to find.  They fill out the little 3-by-5 pew cards.  They check the box that says, “I want to serve.”  But Pete is figuring out that this is a clever ruse among seasoned lay people.  Nine out of ten times, the “I want to serve” ploy is to get special attention from an already overextended staff.  Everyone has unrealistic needs and expectations from him.  (Unmet father-love issues up the yin-yang.)  Now he’s got a boomer-buster crowd that is busy and boundaried, opinionated, critical, and DEMANDING.

Even his staff is whiney.  If he lets his subliminal self speak up, that’s for the only word for these “associates in ministry.”  Hah!  Each one is there own special interest group and none of them really share the weight of responsibility or give him the credit he deserves.  Even with his newly minted Dr. of Ministry Degree from a prestigious seminary– that raised his prospects for career advancement as well as sensitivity and awareness of issues that are relevant to a post-modern cultural– Pastor Pete isn’t getting the respect he is due.  He’s put in his time, poured out his life, and given his treasure to God while those around him store up treasure on earth.

Pastor Pete’s support group– an enlightened breed boasting a college professor, two doctors, two nurses, a lawyer, a businessman, a social worker, a coach, and one master’s level, self-styled, stay at home mom– suggest he may have some kind of burn-out.  A mid-life crisis, perhaps.  Maybe he should write a book.  Get a radio program.  Take a vacation.  This small group has rallied around Pastor Pete and he thinks of them as his present-day disciples, his little group of twelve.  They feel special to be in Pete’s group, a model share group for the rest of the congregation.  They have agonized with him over the burden of his special gifting and fatigue for the last few years.  They endorse a medical check-up, golf on Fridays, a sabbatical, or an extended cruise in the Mediterranean after he leads his Holy Land Tour.

What’s wrong with this picture?  No one thinks to suggest Pete might be suffering from the Narcissistic Christian Leader Syndrome and they all are part of the swirl.

What is the Narcission Christian Leader Syndrome?

A narcissistic leader is a leader that perceive him or herself as central to a group of organization and directs or shapes the organization, often unconsciously, using its people and functions to meet personal ego/life/identity needs.  A narcissistic Christian leader (NCL) uses people and organizations in the same way– to fulfill their own emotional, relational, significance, and status needs– all wrapped up in the supreme purposes of God or under banners of Christian ministry or service to others.

It may look like what I do is for the greater good and I may even give God the glory, but at the end of the day, it’s all about me, my ministry, my good intentions, my legacy, my sphere of influence, my work for the kingdom, my life before God, and more often than not, my career.

Some Christian leaders have their own identities so merged with divine purposes that they don’t know where they leave off and the Almighty begins.  Others have gotten caught up in service cultures that seek winsome, ambitious, or attractive people, who seem “successful”, and will bring their group to glory.  (It reminds me a bit of the Old Testament story where Israel demanded a king.)  Today, it has become hard to tell the difference between leaders with narcissistic (self-centered) characteristics and “narcissistically bent” church systems, businesses, and organizations spawned throughout the globe.  Many of us have stopped even trying to differentiate between our figureheads, our “ministries”, and the will of God.

I hear a hot new Christian vocalist being promoted on praise radio, crooning, “I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I (about five bars of this) just want to lift up your name.”  I wait to hear whose name is going to be lifted up.  Amid the “I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I just want to worships”, for several breathy more choruses, somewhere it seems God got a quickie mention, and then the song is over.  A deep-voiced announcer says, “That was a new CD by Reba Wonderful*, singing songs from her smash album, ‘Worship God’.”  Reba’s name is then presented at least ten more times, with all kinds of superlatives about her rising stardom, her talent, and her popularity.  Her name is intoned with reverence and awe, and then we are encouraged to take Reba’s latest music home with us.  “Go buy Reba’s awesome release, ‘Worship God’.”  Is anyone else struck by this incongruity.?

I must admit that I caught myself joining in a soulful sing-a-long with the I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I chorus.  Then I heard my own I-I-I-I-I-ing against the backdrop of Reba’s name being repeated over and over.  Am I being media mind-washed with the Name of Reba in hopes that it will influence my consumer behavior and lead me to worship God?  The name of Jesus is never mentioned in the twenty-minute talk and music segment on praise radio.

Here is yet another glimpse of the context we live in that fosters the Narcisstic Leader Syndrome.  Just like celebrity pastors, the talent, the creative artists, and the Christian music and media industry are proclaiming our current Christian message to the world: it’s all about us.

As goes the leader, so goes the church.

*More about NLCs to come.*

 

Prague and Prejudice

When did we create a Christianity that promotes the proud & successful and excludes the disenfranchised & the weak?

I was sitting, recently, at a charity dinner, conversing with our table, filled with delightful Christian friends.  They were talking about people they admired in the Christian community.  All of the people mentioned were successful businesspeople or community leaders, all male, all celebrated in society for their exceptional personality attributes, achievements, and accomplishments.  In the same conversation, there was mention of associates and colleagues who had fallen from grace, with almost no mention of the widows and orphans, “collateral damage” of these erstwhile role models who had (so sad) suffered from mental illnesses,  broken marriages, financial problems, political misteps or public disgrace.  It struck me that this is all too common in the conversations we, as Christians, engage in.  We clearly reveal our prejudices about who we identify as  worthy of praise and honor & people who are a disgrace, those who have been put “outside the camp”, somehow shameful and an embarrassment to us.

Then I thought about Jesus– our example.

“He was despised and rejected by men.  Man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.  Surely, He carried our iniquities and transgressions.  And the shame that we incurred on ourselves was put upon Him.”

What has happened to our conscience, our Christ-consciousness?  I hate to say it, but more & more, I am feeling ashamed of being identified with a Christian culture that carelessly identifies with worldly success more than to set ourselves in alliance with the poor & the needy, the confused & the downtrodden, the oppressed & the broken.

Oh yes, we give awards to the Humanitarian of the Year, the exemplary Christian servant who has done something remarkable– innovative, sacrificial, or has given a large sum of money to care for the needy and marginalized, the widows and orphans, the rejects of society at large.  We celebrate these saints of altruism at banquets that cost us $150 per plate or more.  These events can be really fun and advantageous to our status, to boost our social collateral– we can get our names on plaques, donor lists, and society pages, to our own acclaim… and a lot of people think we’re swell!

Is this the example that Jesus set for us, that we should follow in His steps?

Now, I like a good charity gala as much as anyone, as long as there’s good company, wine, and dancing, and not just an overpriced chicken breast with green beans.  But  my mind keeps turning to a wooden carving of Christ that I saw in a cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic.  When we visited Prague in the crisp, cold winter between Christmas and New Year’s (2010), we took a private city tour and the crown jewel was the castle overlooking the city and the treasure at the center which is the magnificent cathedral.  We were told by our tour guide that Prague is 80% atheist and most people don’t put any stock in faith or religion.  But as we walked into the hushed grandeur of this gothic wonder, one of the great cathedrals of the world, the tour guide said that there were Christian relics and religious artwork but that our tour didn’t include it.  He added that if you tell the attendants that you are truly a believer, they are required to let you walk in the cathedral and worship.  They will not make you pay the high fee to see the art that lines the sanctuary, inner chapels and altars around the parameters of this archaic masterpiece that points to a forgotten God.  Our tour guide teased me, when I said I was believer, and said “Go tell them and they might let you see the wooden Christ, in the Annunciation and the chapel of the relics.”  So, I told the youthful guards that I came to pray and was permitted to walk through this highly artistic and deeply historical rendering of a devout faith, which (despite its beauty and compassion) had failed to move the heart of the culture to God.  I stood briefly at a wood-carved crucifix of Jesus, a crude representation, forged from a massive piece of wood.  Jesus is stretched out, the suffering, comprehensive, simple.  Christ crucified, larger than life, arms reached out, in agony, tucked away in an alcove, that the locals don’t bother to visit and only a few tourists pay the price to see.  This Jesus is seared in my memory.

I read about missionaries that came, late in the game– the 3rd to 9th century, to the almost-savage, treacherous, mystical, magical, pagan culture that was this part of Central-Eastern Europe.  It was a Christianity that the book said & our hosts confirmed was only superficially adopted and never truly captured the hearts of the people.  And there in a corner, I came to worship Christ, rejected and suffering for a city of people, well-acquainted with grief and years of oppression and suffering.

I wonder if we are more like these atheists than we like to think.  The city of Prague is filled with glorious churches and sacred music, monuments, and memorabilia.  But at the same time, it’s not so much about Christ or Christianity or the Kingdom of God , but a walk through the stuff of religion which was used to make a name for oneself, to put a place on the map, to gain recognition and status.  Using the stuff of religion to make us great.

What do we use Christianity for?

Who do we despise and reject to achieve our aims?

And where is Jesus?

Pictures of Ourselves

A few years ago, our family went to a John Singer exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.  An entire room is dedicated to pictures of one family, the Werthsheimers, a wealthy Jewish family who lived around the turn of the 19th century.  Society commentators of the time chided the family for being presumptuous,, taking on airs of the titled and moving out of their social strata by enlisting a portraitist of renown to capture the minutiae of their existence, as if they were royalty.    They posed in ostentatious garb and commissioned numerous magnificent pictures of themselves at important events in their lives, a flattery previously reserved for royalty.  The Werthsheimers were scoffed at for being so audacious as to immortalize their moments and preserve themselves for posterity by filling their world with pictures of themselves.  How outrageous!

That was then; this is now.  The year, 2011.

I am greeted at the door of a friend’s home.  There is a beautiful, glossy, 12-by-12 picture of her children dressed up as figures of the nativity scene.  Her littlest one plays the role of Baby Jesus.  This is the first Christmas decoration, front & center, as we enter the house.  We then pass by a long wall of pictures of the family, tastefully & artistically rendered.  This leads to a large family room with, as  you might guess, more large family pictures. 

I wonder how it affects human development to walk, daily, through a gauntlet of ourselves, smiling beautifully, as the major ornamentation of our world.  I wonder  how it teaches our children to view themselves in relation to other people or to whether it might inhibit our thinking about others at all.

It is no wonder that we have some difficulty viewing other people as anything other than peripheral to our story.  Other people remain important as potential observers, viewers, and admirers of our pictures of ourselves.  But who are they, these observers, these other people?  As we focus our cameras, we politely ask them to step aside and not intrude on another image we’re adding to our collection.  We now have the capability and freedom to cut other people out after the fact, if some blunderer accidentally intrudes into our creative memory.  So we see ourselves with flattering mirrors all around us and we are in the center of it all, left admiring our own reflections. 

It used to be there was a flush of excitement when as an elementary school kid we could pick ourselves out in a montage or class photo.  “The camera caught me!”, we might feel in a surge of self-importance that is kept in check in the context of looking at 26 other kids with crooked bangs or droopy socks and awkward smiles or budding confidence reflected on their collected faces.

Today, I can choose a backdrop, get a Hollywood glossy treatment and a whole pack of large images of my son or daughter to give to friends and family.  These modern renditions eclipse the rather shoddy and insignificant class picture where my child looks goofy, and it’s really just a group of 2nd graders instead of a close-up glamour pose to highlight my child’s remarkable attributes, so one can pick him out of a line-up in a talent agency.

This is all for $16.95.  It’s expected, vital, an American right.  We deck our halls and anyone else’s we can think of with these monuments to ourselves.  A culture of home videos starring who?  Us, of course.  We wish we could get someone else to come watch them with us. I actually had a friend send me her birthing video, unsolicited.  Her husband narrated two hours of the bloody baby birth miracle and she arranged for us to meet for lunch so we could see the pictures together.  Over pasta.  The couple had gotten 30 some copies and sent them to all their friends to share the joy.

Now I’m the first to cry in awe over the miracle of new life, but what is wrong with this picture?  Something is missing from the frame.  Something essential.

I took rudimentary drawing lessons from a wonderful artist named Deanna Nelson.  She’s the person who taught me this word called “perspective.”  When it comes to capturing something you see, there is figure and ground.  You give the focus of your study its depth and dimensionality by also including other objects for contrast and interest.  These other elements help you see the truth, the whole that’s more than the sum of its parts as well as the specifics of the one thing.  One rose is defined more clearly among the bouquet of flowers or against the hard backdrop of a book or the pale, flushed cheek of a young woman.  Perspective is dependent upon the surrounding canvas.  Perspective is drawn from contrast & otherness.  

This is simply a reflection of how we’ve shifted into a narcisstic worldview and frame of reference.  We’ve reduced other people to background images, a part of the scenery, or the person taking the picture.  If we’ve been the centerpiece of our images and imagination from an early age, how do we even begin to develop curiosity and interest in others  much less build reciprocal relationships that work?

If the icon is me, we might need a new iconoclastic movement.

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