Surprising, Transforming Initiative

Romans 12:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-45

October 16, 2016


Earlier this week, David Brooks[i] did a bit of psychoanalyzing by suggesting that Donald “Trump continues to display the symptoms of narcissistic alexithymia, the inability to understand or describe the emotions of the self. Unable to know themselves” writes Brooks, “sufferers are unable to understand, relate or attach to others.”

“To prove their own existence, they hunger for endless attention from outside. Lacking internal measures of their own worth, they rely on external but insecure criteria like wealth, beauty, fame and other people’s submission.”

I have no idea about whether this applies to the New York real estate mogul or not but I’ve seen this condition up close and personal. Brook’s points out that people like this are bad at friendship, worse at love and affection. They can only imitate the intimacy that they see in other people but they can’t really do it themselves, so their marriages fail.

They mostly deploy anger and aggression. They are given to demeaning others. But they can be very competitive. Indeed, what surprised me was just how successful the two men I knew that really had the full-blown manifestation. One was a doctor, one was an entrepreneur.

What struck me at the time is how both of them had climbed the ladder of success. While it was true that they built organizations that were tyrannical, most everyone around them put up with it because they were all paid more than very well. And most of their presenting symptoms could be socially channeled in constructive ways. They were fighters, aggressive, bold, willing to step out and do something larger than life. It really struck me that in the limited context of their jobs and because of the limited expectations of our work environments, you can have this disorder and continue up the ladder of success. And there are quite a few jobs that it seems to help if you can channel anger into aggression.

But it doesn’t work at home. At home, they are very lonely people, even if they are surrounded by an extended cast of other people that they are acquainted with through the success of their work. You can’t buy other people’s love. You have to open yourself to other people.

And it isn’t until you get to that really intimate moment that you see the full manifestation of this disorder. Typically, their spouse threatens to leave them. That is followed by inordinate gifting, inordinate indulgence. It works, but it doesn’t work. And their spouse says to them, “I want to love you but you won’t let me…. I’m leaving because I need something more than you can give me.” It is a very sad impasse. But their limits are exposed.

It is sad because we all want to love and be loved. People who are like this have this spiritually hollowness to them. The two people that I knew desperately wished they had this capacity that they didn’t have. Without it, the fame, the wealth, the so-called “good life” they led didn’t have the spiritual meaning they knew other people had. They were in a perpetual state where they were frustrated and the intimacy that they wanted most was elusive. It was horrible to see.

When I saw it up close and personal, it helped underscore the fullness of God’s intention for us to live out of our love, our grace and gratitude. The Spiritual life is about touching other people. It is about empathy, compassion, understanding, and healing people of the negative things they were born into. What is really real for us spiritually is making a difference in the lives of other people. What gives us the deepest satisfaction is when other people are grateful for us. Usually in an unguarded moment, a friend, a spouse, perhaps a child and they tell you that you really helped them at a critical time. And for just a second, you wade into the pool of meaning. You are glad to be alive and grateful.

My ethics professor, Glen Stassen, used to say that we have the capacity to make surprising, transforming initiatives spiritually. We can make a difference and change the situation. He thought Jesus was one of those creative people who is able to ‘turn the other cheek’, not something you would expect and in the nt change the situation completely. And so we can.

Angela Paton [ii]runs Camp Diva in Richmond, Virginia. It is an organization that promotes girls and their fathers, recognizing how important fathers become for young girls and how much positive influence that young girls have on their fathers.

When she asked the girls what they wanted from their father’s, they had many answers but they wanted to have a dance and they did. All these 9 year old girls dressed up and all their Dad’s put on coat and tie and they danced and had a meal together. It was a huge hit in Richmond and lots of people wanted to get in on it.

A couple years ago, one of the girls in her group was very sad. After they prompted her a bit, she told the other girls that her Dad could go to the dance because her Dad was in jail. Angela had this marvelously creative response in that awkward moment, she let the girls solve their problem.

One of the girls said, “Why don’t they let him out for a day?” Everyone explained how jail doesn’t work like that.

And file this under “A Child shall lead them”. One of the girls says, “Why don’t we take the dance to the jail?” Of course, all the other girls said, “what are you crazy, they won’t let a bunch of little girls into a jail.”

So Angela said, ‘you never know until you ask’.

And she wrote a letter to the Sherriff asking if they could have a dance in the jail. And she had all the girls sign the letter with their 9 year old hand writing.

The Sherriff got the letter and called Angela up right away. He said to her, “one thing I know is that our prisoners are much less likely to come back to prison if they are connected to their children. Anything I can do to promote a healthy relationship between these men and their kids, I will do.”

And there was born the dance inside the jail. I’m sure there was a lot of planning that had to be done and a lot of difficult things that had to be worked out. But Angela’s group got permission to put up some crepe paper in the gym of the jail, punch bowl, DJ. She got a caterer to bring in a meal.

16 inmates traded in their orange jump suits (the girls called them sponge bob suits) and the guards gave them shirts and ties. I think they had 18 daughters that were able to come and they all came to the gym, dressed in their nicest dresses.

And they danced. Simple enough. As it turns out, also possibly profound. I never thought about the fact that prisoners don’t get any physical contact with their families or loved ones or what impact that has on them. But I suspect that it is more than you would presume.

Angela said it was the simple things. Being able to fix their daughter a plate of food, pulling her chair out for her, extending their hand and asking their daughter’s for a dance. She said, even the guards got a little welled up watching the normality of it all. We are humans. We need normal touch.

And Angela did another creative thing. She gave them all flip cams, so they could record each other and create this memory that they could play in the future, the Dad’s and the daughters, when they would miss each other. So they all sat and laughed with each other and made these little videos together.

Angela said she will never forget one young girl who held the camera up and asked her father, “Daddy, when you look at me, what do you see?” Such a simple question. Such a profound question as Angela knows all too well. Because when it comes time for girls to date and pick a mate, they are profoundly guided for good and ill by the way that their father reflected back for them an image of who they are and what they deserve.

They laughed, they danced, they hugged and said ‘goodbye’. The Sherriff pulled the men together after they left in a circle, to process what they were going through and help them make that transition back to being a prisoner again.

The guys all sat together thinking their thoughts staring at the floor. One of them finally said, “This is what we are missing because we made bad decisions…”

I just wonder if that dance didn’t get through in a way that nothing else really could? I wonder if those daughters didn’t help heal their fathers in a way that no one else really could?

But that was creative, surprising, transforming… humane. How insightful of Angela Patton to promote fathers and daughters and strengthen that relationship. How surprising the influence they have on healing their fathers and keeping them on the higher path. How transforming the simple use of touch to remind us of what is spiritually real in our lives and bring out the humane side of prisoners. We are all in need of redemption, redemption that keeps us humane.

It is my prayer that we will stop looking at prisoners simply as people that deserve punishment and start seeing them people that will return to civil society soon enough, people that are worth redeeming.

More broadly, our world is crying out right now for leaders with transformative vision like that of Angela Patton and the Sherriff of the city of Richmond. We hope for people that will think outside the box, break through the grid lock, and transcend the partisanship.

And I pray for you too. May the Spirit of God fall fresh on you. In the midst of anxiety may you be filled with creativity and figure out what transformative initiative you can do to change the calculus of the situation around you.

Open yourself to the Holy Spirit of God and be guided in a new way. Drive back the cynicism with what is good. Keep yourself real and in touch with what is meaningful. May God bless you and may God preserve what is humane in your soul. Amen.



[i] “Trump’s Sad, Lonely Life, New York Times, Tuesday, October 11, 2016, p. A23.
[ii] I heard Angela’s TED talk coming home from Washington. Any misrepresentation of her work is simply due to my memory. You can simply hear her speak for herself at


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