Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Conforming to the Standard of Non-Conformity

Romans 12:1-3 (New International Version)

Romans 12

Living Sacrifices
1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual[
a] act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
3For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

Romans 12:1 Or reasonable

Romans 8:28-29 (New International Version)

More Than Conquerors
28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,[
a] who[b] have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

This past Friday Nancy and I attended a benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity’s local chapter here in Emporia. The event, called “A Lord Built House,” was absolutely wonderful. The participants included the Emporia High School Chorale, the Emporia State University A Capella Choir, The Emporia State University Community Chorus, The Flint Hills Brass Quintet, and a group of gospel singers who called themselves “Solid Rock.”

The music was quite eclectic. In all there were nineteen pieces. It began with a rousing rendition of John Leavitt’s “River in Judea,” followed by a Doobie Brothers number – “Jesus is Just Alright,” There was, of course, some Bach (Contrapunctus X), and a nice arrangement of “Danny Boy.”

In between the choral arrangements I spent some time looking around at the “congregation” gathered to celebrate. It was even more eclectic than the music. There were a few farmers or ranchers in bib overalls and an accountant or two in Brooks Brothers’ suits. And, tuxedos were there ever tuxedos. Why I’d wager that there were more tuxedos in Emporia, Kansas last Friday night than you would find at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Ah, but the thing that really caught my eye was the red hats and purple outfits more than half the women in attendance were wearing. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It was a sea of purple and red, giving the sanctuary the look of an Easter egg. As I scanned over and over again in disbelief, Nancy leaned over and asked me, “What’s with the glazed over look, Slick?” I chuckled a bit. How could she be missing what was going on? “It’s the red hats, Coach. I’ve never seen so many red hats in one place in my life.” I laughed quietly with my hand covering my mouth, making sure that I wouldn’t be noticed, and continued responding. “And these purple outfits…..Have you ever seen anything like that in your life?”
“They’re probably part of the Red Hat Society.”
“The what?”
Now it was Nancy’s turn to laugh. “You’ve never heard of the Red Hat Society?”
“You’re puttin’ me on. I mean I'm beginning to think this is some kind of joke and I’m on Candid Camera looking really stupid right now.”
“No, it’s a real society. Remember that book that Pat Clements gave me when we lived in New Jersey?”
“I think so….. “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Purple,” right?
“That’s the one. It’s now all spun off and women are joining “red hat” societies all around the country.
“Has anyone told them how ridiculous they look?”
“Be gracious, Slick. They’re just trying to maintain their distinctiveness as they grow old. They just want to separate themselves from the masses.”
“Yeah, but they all look alike, and they look ridiculous. I mean, would you let me out of the house wearing a Buffalo Bills cap and a Minnesota Vikings jersey?”

Nancy’s silence and my experience over the years told me I was right.

There was something very amusing about it all. As I sat, alternately listening to the grand music and scanning the audience, my mind wandered back to an old cliché – conforming to the standards of non-conformity. I drifted back even further, to another time when I was walking through New York’s financial district with my two sons, Jarrod and Michael. There, in the midst of the sea of humanity, was a young man, about twenty five or so, dressed in a really nice pinstripe suit, gliding along the street on roller-blades. Michael, my youngest noticed the haircut first. It was a “Mohawk,” dyed in alternating streaks of blue, red, yellow, and orange. “What is that?” he asked. Without thinking I told him that he was just another guy going to the office.

It’s interesting to me; we spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to set ourselves apart from the crowd, trying to be distinctive. We try to do something dramatic to regain our individuality in the seas of humanity around us, and at those rare times we succeed a crowd joins us. Hence, the Red Hat Societies and the roller-blading stock broker. The cliché fits. It’s true. We get caught up in the standards of non-conformity and we find ourselves conforming in the end.

But beyond the sea of red hats and the chorales, the highlight of the evening for me was a five minute presentation from a “Habitat” homeowner. She was dressed very plainly, the Wal-Mart look I guess you’d call it. There was no red hat; there was no purple outfit. She got right to the point, giving us a glimpse of what a typical recipient here in Emporia looks like. She was a single mother with two children. Until a few years ago she had been married and “making it.” Then her husband just left. She never said why he had, just that he’d left. From that point on it was one misfortune after another. She moved into a trailer. Shortly after that the roof began to leak. A “repairman” came and promised her to repair the damage for a thousand dollars. She gave him the money and he skipped out of town.

Her downward spiral was complete. She had no money, no prospects, and a trailer that was literally falling apart at the seams.

But then Habitat for Humanity stepped in and helped her build a house and also rebuild her life. A group of volunteers (usually grey panthers like me), generous donors, and a single mother contributing sweat equity, made a dream come true.

I like to think of these types of community projects as Gospel sweat equity, ways to conform to a very special standard of non-conformity. It’s a standard that binds us to our communities and our fellow citizens rather than separating us from them. Instead of seeing ourselves as distinct and distant, this standard, the Gospel, causes us to see the things we have in common with others and the needs that need to be met all around us.

It seems to me that the early Church operated this way much more than we do today. In the century just passed there were movements that tried to replicate it. There was communal living and there was Christian Marxism. Like the Red Hat Societies and the roller-blading stock broker, they were built on the premise that we needed to be different than the “world.” The problem with them, though, was that their foundations were laid on the wrong standard of non-conformity.

There are many times I feel like an alien in this world. I think it’s good and healthy. I think it’s Christian. But when I try to separate myself too much from the people and needs around me I realize that I’ve gone too far. I find myself alienated from the world I should be engaged in. I see the example of the Church and I see the example of Jesus. The thing that made Him, and the Church, distinctive, was that they were very active in the world, meeting needs and spreading the “good news.”

There is a way to conform to the real Standard of non-conformity. It’s in allowing ourselves to be conformed to the image of Jesus. There’s no dress code to adhere to. Chinos are acceptable as are bib overalls and tuxedos. Even red hats and purple outfits are fine. All it takes is a willing heart conforming to His image, feet prepared to walk in His ways, and hands ready to lift the burdens of those around us.

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