The Dark Side of Idealism

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Commemorative Stamp in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution at Flossenbürg concentration camp

Idealism is a doubled-edged sword in life and in leadership. I’ve learned the hard way that while idealism can be a positive force in casting vision, it can also erode joy, contentment and graciousness in relationships. This insight really came home when I read this sentence from German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Bonhoeffer was one of the most fascinating pastoral leaders of the 20th century. He was a complex man. He shared profound reflections on the Christian faith seen in his books like The Cost of Discipleship where he wrote bluntly, “When Jesus calls a man (sic), he bids him come and die.” At the same time he was also involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb that nearly succeeded (This plot was the basis for Tom Cruise’s movie The Valkyrie). Because of that he was imprisoned in Flossenbürg concentration camp and executed just three days before the Allies liberated the camp. You can read more about him in Eric Metaxas’ highly- acclaimed biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

One of the fascinating aspects of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry was his leadership of the Confessing Church seminary community at Finkenwalde (1935-37) immediately preceding WWII. Bonhoeffer was leading and teaching a group of men who were willing to defy the Nazi’s by studying to be pastors of the Confessing church. These men were idealists, committed to Christ and the church to the point of willingness to be arrested and even executed (some of them eventually were.) But, one night in 1935, early in their life together as a seminary community, Bonhoeffer asked for help in the kitchen with the dinner dishes. There were no volunteers, and Bonhoeffer washed dishes alone that night.

I think Bonhoeffer was speaking first to himself when he wrote,

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 27).

When I was first assessed for entering pastoral ministry, the pastoral counselor highlighted what I now call the “dark side of idealism.” One sentence in his report still echoes in my mind, “Doug tends to set very high standards for himself and for those around him and to experience disappointment when these standards are not met.” Over 40 years later… it’s still more true that I would like to admit.

As a person in relationships and a leader in community, I realize the ideals for “the best” can have the unintended consequences of discontent and criticism. I’m continually learning not to allow my ideals to get in the way of developing gracious, realistic fellowship. Do not give up on ideals—the hope for what God can do in Christ. But temper them always with love for who we are and patience with where we are now.

[Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Steve Stager for his helpful research in preparing this post.]

 

 

“I’m a Video, not a Snapshot”

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Too often our opinion of a person gets “frozen” in time, especially when there’s been a conflict. We allow one negative experience to become the defining factor in our view of that person. Because of that “snapshot” image of the person, we get stuck in our expectations and perceptions. We may even withdraw from them and avoid them. This hurts our relationships, especially in the community of God’s people.

Russ, an elder in one of the congregations I served, taught me a key principle about people and change.

We were meeting for prayer together before a Sunday service and began by reviewing the service assignments. There was a definite ‘contemporary’ (a reference my Presbyterian readers understand!) tone to the services that Sunday, and I had heard that Russ ‘hated the drums.’

“Russ, I imagine this service may be a challenge for you,” I said.

“Really? Why’s that?” he responded with genuine surprise.

“Because of the drums. I heard that you weren’t really a fan of them.”

“Oh, I used to make a pretty big deal about that, but I’ve changed over the years. Worship needs to connect with all God’s people, not just us ‘traditional’ types. I’m not a snapshot, I’m a video.”

That really hit me: a video, not a snapshot. A continually changing image, not a static one. We are not wise when we lock our perception of a person or group of people into one position, as if they are frozen in time, like a snapshot. We need to expect that many will continue to work through their ideas and preferences and make changes. People, especially those actively pursuing growth in Christ, are dynamic, changing, growing and learning.

Paul describes our transformation in Christ as a process of changing “from one degree of glory to another,” as the Revised Standard Version translates the following verse.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Revised Standard Version).

I appreciate that image of degree-by-degree, step by step; and most often it’s baby step by baby step.

The stimulus for change comes as we break free from the limited and limiting perspective of this world. We learn to view everything with the eyes of faith. Another way to say this is that we are learning to see life from the aspect of eternity. We are gaining perspective and a sense of proportion by viewing life as if we were seated with Christ in heaven.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7 English Standard Version).

This is a staggering concept with countless implications for every aspect of life: our values, priorities, relationships, commitments and so on. For now, let it remind us that we need to give each other grace to grow. Instead of getting stuck with a negative impression of a person and their ideas, check to see how they have changed with time and experience.

 

Gollum and Necessary Companions

We all have people in our lives we’d like to avoid and be done with. But in doing so, we may miss something essential to our life and mission.

Gollum was a disgusting, dangerous and necessary companion for Frodo Baggins. If you’re not familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic novels of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a brief background will suffice. Tolkien’s epic work The Lord of the Rings, tells the story of evil power rising to tyrannize and exploit Middle Earth, controlled by The One Ring of Power. Thousands of years before the events of the novels, the Dark Lord Sauron had forged the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power and subdue those who wore them: the leaders of Men, Elves and Dwarves. Sauron was later vanquished in battle by an alliance of Elves and Men. The One Ruling Ring was lost in the River Anduin at Gladden Fields. Over two thousand years later, the ring was found by one of the river-folk called Déagol. His friend Sméagol (who was eventually called Gollum) immediately fell under the ring’s influence and strangled Déagol to acquire the Ring. Sméagol was banished and hid under the Misty Mountains. The power of the ring seduced Gollum, controlling him and making him a lesser being. One of the benefits of the ring was being invisible, which had great advantages for survival. The ring also extended his lifespan and transformed him over the course of hundreds of years into a twisted, corrupted creature. Ironically, Gollum lost the ring, his “precious”, and, as recounted in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins found it. Meanwhile, the Dark Lord Sauron re-assumed physical form and took back his old realm of Mordor. (Hang in there– I’m getting to my point…).

The hobbit Frodo Baggins inherited the ring from Bilbo Baggins, his first cousin (once removed) and guardian. Neither were aware of its origin and nature, but Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and old friend of Bilbo, suspected the ring’s identity. When Gandalf became certain, he knew the only way to destroy the Dark Lord and prevent the absolute corruption of Middle Earth was to keep Sauron from getting the ring. Gandalf strongly advised Frodo to destroy the ring by throwing it into the Cracks of Doom, the lava flow in the heart of Mt. Doom, where the all the rings were originally forged. Frodo agreed, and thus began an arduous and very dangerous quest.

Along the way Frodo was tracked and attacked several times by Gollum who was driven to get the ring back from Frodo. When Frodo had the opportunity to do away with Gollum, however, Frodo showed mercy. Instead of killing Gollum, Frodo made constructive use of Gollum’s knowledge and skills. Like David with King Saul, Frodo never took judgment into his own hands (see 1 Samuel 24:6-15 and 1 Samuel 26:1-25). The result (spoiler alert!) was that Gollum led Frodo to the Cracks of Doom and (there’s a lot more to this story!) the The One Ring of Power was destroyed. Middle Earth was saved.

We all have ambivalent relationships that we cannot avoid, trying as they are. I think of Jesus choosing Judas as one of the disciples and entrusting him with the group’s money (John 12:4-6). That decision takes us into serious contemplation on the nature of fellowship. Even among God’s people there are relationships in which we may feel devalued, undermined, put on the spot by competition and comparison, taken advantage of, taken for granted, and any number of other frustrations. And, to be candid, we often consider ways to avoid these relationships. The Gollum principle (perhaps we could call it the “Judas principle”…), however, sounds a note of caution. Maybe there is a redemptive purpose in the midst of this trying relationship. Gollum is that person who causes persistent irritation, but in the end plays an important, even essential, role.

Some time ago I made a list of my “Gollums.” I know this sounds terrible– but I had to be honest with myself as a discipline of confession and repentance. On reflection, I was able to name not only the “challenge(s)” those few people posed, but also the value they brought into my life. I do not claim I wanted to continue in those relationships. They are not friend-type folks for me. But I’ve learned that I am called to humility and patience, even when I think I have justification to change the relationship. They ended up helping me move along the journey.

We can all understand difficult, antagonistic relationships in the world. The sobering truth is that fellowship in the Body of Christ brings the us into community with those who would not choose to relate to us under other circumstances. It helps me to remember that I am to value and love all whom God calls. Knowing myself in all honesty, I am amazed at God’s love for me. And I sometimes I wonder whose Gollum I am.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord… 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.                  Romans 12:14-21 New International Version (NIV)