Stephen Brehe

This month’s column is a miscellany at the intersection of religion and society, plus a personal poem. Hopefully these things will stimulate your grey matter and enlarge your hearts.

Self-esteem and narcissism

Narcissism has been in the public mind lately because we have a president who clearly exhibits the signs and symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Narcissists typically are preoccupied with unlimited success, power, and genius. They believe they are special and can only be appreciated by other highly regarded people or institutions. They demand devotion and loyalty.

Of course, our president isn’t the only narcissist in the country, just the best known. You find narcissists just about everywhere, with mild to severe symptoms, making life miserable for those around them. Maybe your boss is one. Perhaps, even you. If you wonder if you might be one, you can take a simple assessment to find out (www.psycom.net/narcissistic-personality-disorder-test).

How do narcissists end up that way? An article on “The Self Confidence Tipping Point" in The Atlantic got me thinking about the difference between healthy self-esteem and unhealthy self-love from a religious perspective. Jesus gets at the difference in his Summary of the Law (from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18) when he says we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Notice that neighborly love and self-love go hand in hand. Self-esteem is being okay with yourself and accepting yourself for who you are. Narcissism is the opposite. As one psychologist put it in The Atlantic article, “the two conditions are as different as happiness and sadness.”

Narcissism and self-esteem develop around age 7 or 8. Want your children to become narcissists? Then emphasize that they are superior and more entitled than others. Be sure to shame them when they don’t meet your standards. That’s what may narcissists experience growing up.

On the other hand, if you want your children to grow up and have a healthy ego, help them understand that they don’t have to stand out to earn approval. Love them unconditionally. They will grow up and love their neighbors as well as themselves.

Refugees honored by statue at Vatican

Pope Francis unveiled a large statue in St. Peter’s Square depicting 140 migrants and refugees in a boat, representing different people from different times. They include the Holy Family (Jesus began his life as a refugee), Jewish prisoners escaping Nazi Germany, as well as modern refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

In his sermon, Pope Francis said, "Loving our neighbor means feeling compassion for the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, drawing close to them, touching their sores and sharing their stories, and thus manifesting concretely God's tender love for them." He went on to say, “This means being a neighbor to all those who are mistreated and abandoned on the streets of our world, soothing their wounds and bringing them to the nearest shelter, where their needs can be met. The Lord has a particular concern for foreigners, widows and orphans, for they are without rights, excluded, and marginalized," Perhaps we should place copies of the statue in specific locations around America.

Do souls exist? What’s their purpose?

Over the years, there’s been a lot of nonsense written about what a soul is. One scientist, back in 1901, measured the weight of six dying patients, just before and after their deaths. From the difference he calculated that a soul weighed about 21 grams. Such foolishness.

David Brooks of The New York Times, writing about racial reconciliation, has given the best description of the soul I have run across. He argues that our soul is that intangible part of each of us that makes everyone equal. It has no mass, size, or shape, but gives everyone infinite raison d'être.

“Our brains and bodies are not equal, but our souls are,” he writes. “It is the belief that the person who is infuriating you most right now still has a soul and so is still, deep down, beautiful and redeemable. It is the belief that when all is said and done all souls have a common home together, a final resting place as pieces of a larger unity. When people hold fast to their awareness of souls, then they have a fixed center among the messiness of racial reconciliation and they give each other grace. If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.”

All Saints is Easter in the fall

All Saints Day was Friday (Nov. 1), although some churches will transfer it to tomorrow and call it All Saints is Sunday (Nov. 3). All Saints is a favorite festival of mine because it celebrates Christ’s victory in his saints over death and diminishment. Saints are folks who love God, love others, and have changed the world.

Here’s a poem of mine where I take a trip down memory lane, recalling the joy of All Saints Day when I baptized a baby.

"All Saints. Easter in the fall."

Pulling out all the stops for heroes, known and unknown.

Hildegaard and John Donne, Janani Luwum and Sojourner Truth standing with us.

God-crazed, pretzeled procession winding around the nave.

Unfastening parishioners from bolted down pews to crowd around the font.

Standing shoulder by shoulder witnessing new birth.

Nervous parents holding their little cherub about to receive new life.

Water. Oil. Candles. Slings of baptismal waters to rouse all.

Pax Christi, beaming priest carrying the new saint down the aisle.

The always "almost perfect" children’s anthem.

Costumed Martins of Tours, Margaret of Scotland, and Luke the doctor singing “They were all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”

Then a splash of Victoria or Bach or maybe Handel.

Sursum corda. Great Amen. Our Father. Holy Communion.

And that little cherub receiving a drop of wine made holy.

Communing. Hymning. All to kindle God’s love in the hearts of the saints.

Nothing held back.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

For it is All Saints. It is Easter in the fall.

Looking ahead

Everyone loves Christmas pageants. Little boys dressed in bathrobes as shepherds. Little girls decked out in white with angel wings and halos. The newest baby in the congregation as the infant Jesus. As gentle and sweet as our pageants are, the Luke and Matthew stories about the birth of Jesus set the stage for the revolutionary, upside-down Messiah of the Gospels. It's all hinted at in the Nativity stories. Who is king: Jesus or Herod? Who is God's Son: Jesus or Caesar? What brings fulfillment to the world: the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of Caesar? Come and join us as we explore these two powerful preludes to our Lord's ministry in a program with Mark Wilson, my compatriot on these pages, and myself on Nov. 26 and Dec. 3 at 11 a.m. at South Hills Church of Christ. We will meet for about 90 minutes each time on the lower level. The church is located at 2294 Deerfield Lane, just south of the South I-15 exit. For information contact Stephen Brehe at sbrehe912@gmail.com or Mark Wilson at rmwilson53@gmail.com.

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The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe served as Dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena from 1991 to 2010.


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