Why Do Churches Put Up with Narcissistic Leaders?

Another high profile pastor has been accused of abusive leadership. The story is so familiar to us by now that it has become monotonous. We are sorry, but we are not surprised. Or maybe we are not sorry. The debacle holds a macabre fascination for us. Like watching a horrific accident while it is in progress, we can’t look away. The fall of a great leader appeals to our egalitarian sensibilities. We like to see the mighty cut down. Americans love to hate their leaders. The story of abusive leaders has become so familiar by now that we ought to ask a question. Why do churches tolerate such pastors? Churches stick with abusive leaders for the same reasons people remain in other abusive relationships.

We are Attracted to Them

No church that is looking for a pastor says to itself, “Hey, I know! Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” Churches give a lot of thought to the characteristics they want to see in their pastor, and most of them are good. Nobody who decides to attend a church is thinking, “Where can I find an abusive pastor today?” The church is drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive to us. Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things for the church. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Those who see through the hype recognize it as pretentiousness. But for churches who are hoping for a messianic leader, narcissistic style can be very appealing. These churches are willing to tolerate the abuse in the hope that the pastor will lead them into the Promised Land of ministry success.

They Reward Us

Any co-dependent relationship is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. We enable narcissistic behavior because we get something from the leader. Sometimes the reward is small. It may only be that we are addicted to the adrenaline of crisis that comes with this style of leadership. Or maybe we like the pastor’s preaching. Churches tolerate narcissistic leadership behavior because they fear that no one else will be able to produce the same results. Churches with narcissistic leaders are often so identified with the pastor that his departure will have a negative effect on attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it is to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. Churches enable narcissistic leaders by developing social systems that reinforce their abuse.  Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with other leaders who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. Because narcissistic leadership comes with perks and special treatment, the inner circle often gets rewarded along with the leader. The result is a co-dependent loop which blinds those who should be responsible for holding the narcissist accountable.

We are Afraid of Them

Narcissistic leaders are bullies. They develop organizational cultures which are marked by fear and punishment. Church members who question their agenda or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 & 11, those who criticize the pastor are sometimes warned not to “raise their hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.” Narcissists use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture of fear which silences objections and penalizes objectors. There is always a cost to those who challenge a narcissistic leader.

What You Can Do About It

What can you do, if you believe your church has a culture of narcissistic leadership? First, pray for divine intervention. This sounds overly simplistic, but it is the most important strategy for dealing with a narcissistic pastor. Narcissistic leaders are extremely difficult to correct. They do not see themselves as narcissists. They do not understand why others criticize their motives and actions. They explain away criticism by attributing it to Satanic attack. Churches with deeply entrenched narcissistic leaders need to ask God to bring the true nature of its dysfunctional leadership to light.  In most cases, things get worse before they get better.

Second, refuse to cooperate with the co-dependent dynamics of the church’s narcissistic culture. You have no control over the narcissist. You cannot force a narcissistic leader to see himself as a narcissist. But you can introduce an element of disequilibrium into the culture by not participating in the game. Dysfunctional cultures are a kind of dance. Everybody has to keep in step. When you refuse to follow the dysfunctional rules you create a dynamic that makes change possible. The foundational rule in a dysfunctional culture is the code of silence. We break that rule by speaking the truth in love. But recognize that there is a cost to this.

Finally, look for a healthier church. This is extremely hard, especially if you have invested your life in the church. Your friends and your ministry are there. Nobody likes to start over. Sometimes the best thing to do in a church system which tolerates narcissistic leadership is to leave. If the pastor is deeply entrenched and surrounded by a team that protects him, you should look to your own spiritual wellbeing. Nobody likes to leave a church. But sometimes it’s the wisest and safest thing to do.

Narcissism appears to be a deceptively tame sin. We tend to think of narcissists as buffoons that everyone can see through. In reality, narcissistic leaders are profoundly damaging to the church.  They are bullies and spiritual abusers who demand that that church serve them. They are the kind of shepherds the Lord condemns in Ezek. 34:2-3: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Chris Fabry about narcissistic leadership.

Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.

Writing and Rejection

I was going through some things the other day and came across what we used to call a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It’s something we writers used to include when we sent out our manuscripts in the days before email. First, you sent a query letter outlining your article (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply in the envelope you had enclosed. Sometimes they wanted to see your piece. More often they did not.

If the editor was interested, you sent the manuscript, in a larger envelope (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply. If the news was good, the reply would come on their own stationery and in one of their own envelopes. If it wasn’t, you got your own envelope back along with the manuscript. I don’t know what they did with the stamps. Most of the time the news was bad.

I had forgotten how long the process took. I haven’t forgotten how bad the rejection felt. It was like asking someone out on a date and being turned down. Or perhaps more accurately, it was like proposing and hearing your intended say no. Curtly. Without any real explanation. Except for that expression on her face which seemed to say, “As if!”

The experience of rejection was soul crushing. I felt embarrassed every time. I wondered if I was foolish to think that I could be published. Determined to never put myself in such a vulnerable position again, I vowed to give up writing. My resolve usually lasted for a few months. Sometimes for a whole year. Then at some point, an idea would come to me. Well, maybe this time. . . .

The envelope I found the other day was postmarked, open, and empty. It would have brought a rejection. I don’t know where I sent it or what kind of manuscript it contained. But I am sure that I sent it with great expectation, certain that the editor would want to publish my words.

I suppose there are other professions whose practitioners experience just as much rejection as writers. Movie stars, professional athletes, and people who run for president (or get elected) come to mind. But I’ve never wanted to be any of those. Not really. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Keeping it Real

Of all the holidays, I have always found the celebration of the New Year to have the least appeal. Maybe this is because of its proximity to Christmas. The New Year’s holiday seems drab to me. It does not offer much. Oh, there is always a football game or two. There are chips and dip on the coffee table. Millennials get to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and wonder who Dick Clark is. Then, of course, there is that smattering of automatic weapon fire at midnight. But none of this is particularly unusual. The truth is, we pretty much have it all year round, including the weaponry.

Some people look forward to the New Year because they see in it a new beginning. The New Year is a blank page upon which they can write anything they wish. For some reason, it always speaks to me of the end of things. That is especially true this year because it marks my last year as a faculty member at the college where I teach. I will be retiring at the end of the school year.

When I asked one of my retired friends what the experience was like he said, “It’s like death. It just goes on and on.” I don’t believe he meant it to sound as depressing as it did. What he was really saying was that retirement is like a permanent vacation. At least, I hope that’s what he was saying. But to tell you the truth, I’m also finding it hard to talk to people about my impending retirement in a way that doesn’t sound depressing to them. If I mention it, they respond with a note of dismay. “You can’t retire,” they tell me, employing the same tone of voice people use for those who have just been diagnosed with a serious illness. “Everybody’s got an expiration date,” I say.

Some people (my children and my wife) have told me that this is a morbid reply. I thought it was realistic. Over the years I’ve found that many people confuse realism with morbidity. “You’re just a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of guy,” one of my optimistic friends said to me not long ago. “No,” I replied patiently, “I am just a realist.”

I must admit that realists see the world differently from optimists. A realist watching Adam fall into sin in the Garden of Eden says, “Oh crap, we’re all dead now.” An optimist says, “At least we can have apple pie while we wait.”
Optimists are chronically enthusiastic. It is one of the things that makes them so irritating. “Dial it down” I want to say. “Don’t you know that there is a galaxy heading in our direction that will crash into the Milky Way and send the earth flying into interstellar space?”

They think I am being allegorical. No, I am not. I am being literal. It’s what realists do. They keep it real. There is a galaxy headed our way that will smash into the Milky Way and destroy the earth. We’ve only got about eight billion years left. I know that this is true because I read it on the Internet today.

The Bible says that when King Hezekiah got sick to the point of death, the prophet Isaiah came to visit him. “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Despite the source, Hezekiah refused to accept such a pessimistic prognosis. He turned his face to the wall and prayed. “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” God sent the prophet back to Hezekiah to say that the king could have fifteen more years. To an optimist, that would be good news. A realist would start counting them down.

Sometime after this the king of Babylon sent emissaries to Hezekiah. He had recovered by then and was happy to show them around the palace. He showed them everything. His bank account. His IRA. The monster truck in his garage. He showed them all his stuff. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t show them.

“Who were those guys?” Isaiah the prophet wanted to know after Hezekiah had walked them to the door. “Just some guys from Babylon” Hezekiah said. “What did you show them?” the prophet asked. “Everything!” the king said cheerily.

“You know what the Lord told me?” Isaiah said. “The time is going to come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

“That’s great!” Hezekiah said. “It means that there will be peace for the rest of my life!”

That’s optimism for you.

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks

Annunciation to the Shepherds

Two shepherds were seated before a small fire. They alternated between making small talk and sitting in silence, like those who are long acquainted. There beyond the glowing rim of the firelight, the flock was huddled in congregation. The men too were huddled against the chill of night, wearing wool and leaning into the flames.

High above, the wheeling stars winked in and out, flickering like candles as they calculated the number of Abraham’s offspring. In the black distance beyond the flock, a night bird cried out in indignation, surprised by a wolf who had come near. He eyed the sheep hungrily. He had been watching them for two nights now. But when another figure appeared unexpectedly at the edge of the shepherd’s camp, the wolf turned and fled. 

There had been no shuffle of approaching footsteps, only a sudden flare of light as if one of them had stirred the fire. The stranger stepped across the threshold, and the shepherds shrank back in alarm. One of them scrabbled for his staff and raised it in defense as the other cowered. But the stranger only laughed good-naturedly.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I come bearing good news. It is news of a great joy for all the people. This very day in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds looked at one another and then back at the figure, who by now was lit so brightly that they had to shade their eyes to see him. The light radiated from him the way heat does when it shimmers off the rocks in the desert sun. ”This will be a sign to you,” he continued.  “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

By now the whole field was lit so that the tiny camp looked like a city in flames. In its glow, the shepherds realized that the angel was not alone. There was a whole troop with him, standing in ranks. “Glory to God in the highest” they shouted. They sounded like an army cheering their captain after some victory. “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” The cry made the shepherds want to cheer too.

Then as if in response to some command, the angel leaped into the air and the rest of the host followed suit. In the space of a breath, they were gone. The winking stars appeared again. There was a pop as sparks flew up from their fire. And the shepherds were left staring into the night sky.

 “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about,” one of them said. The other grunted his assent. The flock had scattered because of the commotion. Their plaintive bleating could be heard in the distance. But the two men paid them no mind. They hurried off into the night, leaving their staffs behind.

Joseph’s Dream

Joseph was awake, just as he had been every night since Mary told him the news. He shook his head at the recollection, just as he had every time he thought about it. Mary was pregnant. He thought he knew her. He was sure he knew her. How could he have been so wrong?

Joseph considered getting out of bed and trying to work but it was late. The noise would surely wake the neighbors. Besides, he couldn’t concentrate. He had tried all day, only to realize that he was staring and shaking his head. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Joseph was grateful for the distraction. But in a moment it all came rushing back. Mary came back to Nazareth after visiting relatives in the hill country of Judah for three months. The trip had been sudden, without explanation. Joseph hadn’t thought much about it at the time. Perhaps Mary had gone to see her cousin Elizabeth for advice about marriage.

When Mary returned, she was a different woman. She went away a virgin and came home pregnant. Of course, Joseph refused to accept it when he was told. How could he do otherwise? But Mary insisted. She did not blush. “An angel appeared to me,” she explained with a smile. Joseph could tell that she expected him to believe her explanation. “The angel told me that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and the power of the Most High would overshadow me,” she said. “And he did! The child I am carrying is the son of God!”

Joseph shook his head again at the memory. It wasn’t possible. How could it be? He was sure there was some other explanation. A drunken Roman soldier who overpowered Mary and took advantage of her on the road, perhaps. Maybe Mary had concocted this unbelievable story out of fear that Joseph would call off their betrothal. The pregnancy could not have been voluntary. Mary had been forced. He was sure of it. She must have been! The story she told seemed like something only a lunatic would say. 

Joseph had said nothing to her at the time. He was afraid to. He simply turned on his heel and walked out the door. He spent the rest of the day working furiously. As if work could somehow make everything go away. He desperately wanted things to go back to the way they were before Mary’s trip. But things would never be the same between them again. How could they? People in the village were beginning to talk. There were awkward questions from some of his customers. Mary was starting to show.

The dog barked again. Then it yelped. Maybe some sleeping householder had thrown a rock to frighten it away, Joseph thought. The thought made him uncomfortable. He was a man of faith. He knew what the Rabbi would say. Joseph would have to divorce Mary. He also knew what kind of punishment the Law of Moses prescribed for Mary’s situation. Unless she could prove that the thing had happened against her will, Mary could be liable to the death penalty. A public divorce would lead to a trial and if Mary persisted with this ridiculous story of hers a public trial was likely to lead to death by stoning.

People would say that it served her right. He supposed that he should be angry. Maybe even pleased that such a fate awaited her. But he only felt helpless. He did not want to see Mary disgraced publically. He did not want her to die. So Joseph made his decision. He would divorce Mary. But quietly. There would be no trial. No public disgrace. He didn’t know how the two of them could continue to live in the same village. Maybe he would move. He would think about that later. 

The decision made, Joseph lay in the dark as sleep finally overtook him. For the first time since he had heard the news, he felt calm. A night breeze stole in through the window, carrying with it the scent from a vagrant patch of daffodils which had sprung up nearby. Only then did Joseph notice the figure standing at the foot of his bed.

Joseph sensed more than saw him. It was shadow upon shadow. Joseph felt his presence but could not make out his face or form. Joseph tried to move but it was as if all his limbs were paralyzed. He tried to speak. But could not make a sound. Was someone there or not? Then the figure spoke. His voice was reassuring as if he had overheard Joseph’s tortured deliberation. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” he said. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All the arguments Joseph had already marshaled against such an explanation rose up within him. He would have interrupted if he could speak. But he was still frozen in place. Unable to move. Unable to utter a sound.

As though the angel heard Joseph’s unspoken objection, he said, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” His tone was patient but firm. The kind one might use when explaining some simple fact to a child. The sort that a teacher uses to remind a student of something they should already know. At the mention of the child’s name, Joseph understood. The child that is to be born will be called “God with us.” Suddenly it all seemed so clear to him. And so obvious. Why hadn’t he seen it before? 

At once Joseph was awake and alert. His heart felt light, like one who has awakened after a long illness and for the first time in weeks is feeling whole. Joseph leaped from his bed and dressed in haste, the first rose light of dawn just beginning to glimmer on the horizon. His plan had been to go to the Rabbi at first light. But instead, he flew down the path in the opposite direction. Towards Mary’s house. His steps set the dog to barking again. He could hear someone calling out Mary’s name over and over. Joseph laughed when he recognized the voice as his own.

The Dogs of Heaven

Two Dogs Playing

My little dog died last week. Her name was Gidget. The end was sudden. That is to say, it was unexpected by me. Looking back I can see that my pup’s health had been in decline for a few weeks, perhaps even for months, but I was unable to recognize the signs. We took her to the vet hoping for an easy fix. There was treatment available but the cost was prohibitive and the overall outcome uncertain. We chose to put her to sleep. This is the second dog I have lost. I was hoping that the experience would be easier. It wasn’t.

Picturing a world without my beloved pet is hard. There are moments when I forget that she is gone. I think that I can hear the jingle of her tags or the sound of her paws as they pad across the floor. I listen for her quiet breathing at night. Then with a stab of sorrow, I remember that she is gone. I am alternately impatient with God and irritated with myself. Is this an example of the goodness of God we read so much about in the Bible? Wasn’t there something he could have done? Should I have done more? I am an adult and not a child. I am a person of faith. I have experienced losses in my life that were far more serious than this. I should just get over it. But I don’t.

I can’t decide if the grief that I feel is for myself or for my pet. I suppose it is both. Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not?

When I examine the question through more detached eyes, it seems foolish to me. What would heaven be like for dogs? When I look back on my dog’s short life, I realize that it consisted mostly of sleeping, eating, and sitting on my lap. She did not read books or think deep thoughts. She did not even watch television. She did not have a job or contribute to the greater good of society. Indeed, she did not have a regard for society at all. Only for the squirrels who sometimes strayed into our yard.

The prospect of a heaven which includes dogs raises any number of theological questions for me. What would they do? To whom would they belong? Some dogs have had more than one owner in their lifetime. Some have no owner at all. The Pharisees once asked a similar question about wives. Jesus was impatient with them. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” he said. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 29:30-31).

Might not the same be true when it comes to our pets? Perhaps in eternity the need we feel for their companionship disappears along with the rest of the old creation. Or is it possible that at the end of all things when the world is made new they too will be changed along with us? C. S. Lewis seems to suggest that such a thing is possible. As Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “…the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and in knowing him, will be itself.” Lewis later admitted that he was on speculative ground when making this statement. He was not stating a fact: “All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty must be a false appearance.”

When we cannot understand God’s actions or the reasons behind them, we must cling to what we do know. Jesus is right, of course. My doubts, as well as my questions, are born of ignorance. I do not really grasp the extent of God’s power: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). The eye that sees the sparrow fall sees the falling tear as well. I do not think God will answer my questions. But his word does assure me that my pup’s life was in his hand. Just as mine is.

My Dickensian Christmas

The Ghost of Christmas Future

It’s that time of year again when we garnish unreasonable expectations with holly in the hope that they will become a reality. Christmas is that magical season when we expect lifelong circumstances to change overnight and all our ancient animosities to disappear.

And why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we believe that the uncle, who for the past thirty years has arrived at every family function already three sheets to the wind, would now suddenly show up sober and in his right mind? Why not expect that sibling, who has shown a special capacity to irritate ever since he or she left the womb, to reveal their winsome and engaging side at last? It’s the magic of Christmas!

I enter every Christmas season with great expectations, hoping to be filled with fezziwigian delight. The snow will fall but only discretely. Friends will drop by. The kids will come home unexpectedly and surprise us. You and I will smile and laugh when we run into each other on Main Street, our arms loaded down with packages. My town will actually have a Main Street. My parents will still be alive. Santa will exist. The usual thing.

Instead, like Scrooge, I am visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past always arrives first to shed light on what has been. The memories flicker like an old home movie. All those hours we spent trying to make the tree stand up straight. We used a bucket full of rocks we had gathered from the backyard because my dad was too cheap to buy a treestand. The night I got yelled at because I broke the picture window while trimming the tree. The morning we awoke to find the tree toppled and my father passed out on the living room floor next to it. My mother’s last year with us, the year she was too sick to decorate the tree. I am sure that not every Christmas I have celebrated was sad. But for some reason, this ghost prefers to begin with the melancholy. By the time those memories are finished, I don’t have the heart to look at the rest.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows up without a green mantle or glowing torch. Instead, it looks more like my computer screen. In its glowing light, I can see scrolling images. Parents are frolicking in the snow with their kids. Couples are gazing romantically at one another in the moonlight. Somebody is eating an awesome burger in a cozy restaurant with friends. Everyone in my feed is smiling, except for one or two who are busily denouncing President Trump. But even they manage to emanate a holiday glow in the midst of their habitual outrage. Anyone who is spiritual is more spiritual than me. The secular are having more fun. This ghost’s message to me is clear: “Everybody is doing better than you.” 

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears in his usual garb. Dressed in deep black which conceals his face and form, the spirit extends his bony hand toward me in a jaunty wave. He might seem graver if he weren’t such a regular visitor. This ghost doesn’t confine his visits to Christmas. He likes to show up every night, just as I am trying to go to sleep. “You know, your cancer might come back,” he says to me. “It’s been known to happen ten or even fifteen years after surgery.” His tone is helpful. As if this were some kind public service announcement. Then in a more reflective mood, he speculates: “Have you ever wondered about all the things that could be going wrong with your body at this very moment that you don’t even know about? Why you could die in your sleep!” I flash a look of exasperation in his direction. He just shrugs. “What?” he says. “It happens.” This is how the conversation goes every night.

I awaken early in the morning. Not to the sound of Christmas bells but to the jingle of the dog’s tags. She wants to be let out. The spirits have done it all in one night. But they’ll be back again this evening. After all, it’s not Christmas yet. It’s just Thursday.

Angels We Have Heard

When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.

Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.

When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you.” Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words
but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.

Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the village carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans. Until now there had been nothing to suggest that their life together would be anything but ordinary.

The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it.  After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.

Yet no braver words have been spoken by an ordinary person since time began. This is no ecstatic utterance made by someone caught in a moment of metaphysical rapture. It is a statement of strong conviction and hard resolve. It is also a workaday response, the sort of reply a soldier or slave might give. Mary, like the angel who greets her, knows her place. Despite the words of the Cherry Tree Carol, she is not the queen of Galilee but only a servant. If she is full of grace at this moment, it is the grace to obey.