Friday, April 22, 2005

Paths of Service or Paths of Glory - Choices for the Church

John 2:14-17 (New International Version)

14 “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”

Do Not Love the World
15 “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

I was listening through some of my old Bob Dylan tracks last Friday and came across this:

“Sometimes I fell so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions,
Are they lost or are they found, have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna’ have to abandon?

- Bob Dylan – “Slow Train Comin’ (1979)

Then, this past Tuesday I read a great essay titled “Get Little” on Michael Gallaugher’s blog, Christian Conservative. It was a summary of message given by Dr. David Gibbs at a conference Michael attended. Three portions of Michael’s essay follow:

"If you really want God to be big, you have to be small “We all know this, but the world’s values permeate into the even the Church. The world — at least those in the world with claims of religiosity — say “No no no!” They want God to be big and SELF to be big also. In fact, some of them believe that in ORDER for God to be big, we need to be big also.”

“Jesus didn’t say “you need to be talented to be the greatest in the Kingdom.” But the world loves talent. When we find talented entertainers we celebrate them, elevate them, give them riches and honor, follow their private love lives, and seek to be like them. God chose Moses, a man of “faulty lips” (Exodus 6:11) and no talent or stage presence to deliver the greatest of words to Israel, the Ten Commandments. God is not a talent scout. He is looking for little children, and passing over the “wise and learned” to find them (Matthew 11:25).”

“He didn’t say “You need to be famous to be the greatest in the Kingdom.” Jesus said “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). John lived as a poor man, a transient separated from the people, a wild man in the wilderness who ate locusts and honey. The greatest in the Kingdom aren’t the high rollers who appear on the cover of Fortune 500, they are the unnoticed little people who think nothing of themselves.”

Upon listening to Dylan’s lyrical view of Christianity trapped in a world of “earthly principles” and Michael’s straightforward view of the state of things I spent some time thinking through the whole issue of bigness and notoriety and their impact on the Church.

It’s seems to me they’re both right. As I observe things here from my perch in the Kansas Flint Hills that Christians, particularly American Christians, have entered the frantic chase for relevance, recognition, and power within our culture.

There are times nowadays when I survey some of the religious landscape of America when it’s close to impossible for me to tell whether I’m observing Christianity or American Idol. Adulation and superstar status seems to drive too much of the Church’s public face, not servanthood. Power and influence seem to be in. Humility and service are out.

I’ve had this sense for many years now. In that time I’ve hoped that things would get better, that something would shake us up and return us to the Root of our faith. But I have to admit that I haven’t seen much that tells me that we’ve really turned away from this self-destructive path.

I remember, for example, being part of a crusade team that went to Taiwan in 1976. Our mission was to evangelize, and on the surface that seemed to be what was happening. But I got to see things as an insider and what I saw really shook me to the core. On our second night there, after the meeting had concluded, we were on our way back to the hotel. Everyone seemed giddy with the display of power that had just taken place. Souls had been “saved.” Bodies had been healed. As I was reflecting on what I’d just seen a triumphant voice boomed from the back of the bus, “Well, bless God, we are called to preach to THESE people.” The words were greeted with loud cheers and “amens.” But in the midst of all this triumphalism I felt something was wrong. It was the tone of it all that disturbed me. “Who were ‘THESE’ people,” I wondered. It sounded to me like we were describing human beings as objects of our power and profound wisdom, not as people needing love and grace. I’m sure that if I’d said something about what I felt that night I’d have been told how wrong I was. But as much as I tried I couldn’t escape the inner sense that something was amiss with us. We’d been sent to serve, in essence to wash feet, but our mission had somehow evolved into a self-congratulatory power trip.

Two nights later, at dinner, I saw something I could hardly believe. I was sitting at a table with six other believers. At some point during the meal one of my fellow Christians, a woman, asked our waitress for something that she deemed important. The waitress, whose English wasn’t the best, apparently lost what had been said in translation. “Scuse please,” she asked in broken English. It was her way of asking for the woman to repeat herself. This apparently infuriated our “sister.” But she “graciously” moved past her righteous indignation and repeated herself. Somehow the message got across. The waitress left. As soon as she got out of earshot the woman said, dismissively, “Who did she think she was talking to like that. Didn’t she know that I could buy and sell her if I wanted to?” I was stunned at what I was hearing and protested. Then the big surprise came. I was told by all at the table that I just didn’t understand, that this waitress (doesn’t it sound eerily similar to “THESE people”) should have treated people like us with more respect. “But she was only trying to ask a question, trying to understand what you wanted,” I pleaded. But my plea fell on deaf ears. I needed to understand that people like “them” needed to treat people like “us” with the appropriate level of dignity and respect.

And so it went for the next seven days. We’d preach and revel in our power, eat sumptuous meals, and congratulate ourselves after what we’d done. We’d become, in our own eyes, celebrities, symbols of what God can do when He unleashes a Christian American. We were big and the Taiwanese were small and they needed to be grateful to God that we had graciously come to “serve.”

“Kingdom stuff” we called it. We were the hands that were transmitting power. We were God’s mouthpieces, speaking ex-cathedra to “THESE people.”

By all external appearances it was a demonstration of power, but beneath the surface, in the underbelly of our performance, it was nothing more than seething arrogance that masqueraded as power.

That was almost thirty years ago now. But I believe it’s a phenomenon that’s gripping segments of the Church and its para-church organizations (blogs, for example) today as well. Author Michael Horton called it “secularization” and described it this way:

“To become secularized is to become so attached (curved in, bent over) to “this present evil age” that the things of “the age to come” are ignored or pushed off to the side. And yet, this is precisely what is done very week, by liberals and conservatives, sometimes in different ways, but with the same effect: secularization. The subject is us, not God; theology isn’t “practical” – we want “application,” “relevance,” and so forth. When Christians say this, regardless of how warm their piety or affective their zeal, they are saying that the things which belong to this present evil age are the really important matters, and in their secularity they are incapable of understanding the thrust of the New Testament epistles, written as they were to those who, though actively engaged in the common civic, social, and cultural tasks of their unbelieving neighbors, had a profound sense that they were aliens; the confidence in “the things to come” fueled their activity in this world, in this present age.”

We’ve fallen into a trap. In that inimical American way we’ve somehow come to believe that it is our manifest destiny to save the world, to build the Kingdom of God. We’ve forgotten that, as Horton also said:

“Let us trace God’s steps for a moment, as He made it clear to His people that the kingdom belonged to Him, and it was He who would build it by His will and power, for His glory and honor.”

These are words that should shake us to our foundations, but unfortunately they don’t seem to be getting through. The headlong rush to fame and power is underway and far too few want to be left out.

You might think right now that I’m guilty of taking the part for the whole. After all, the Church, by and large, is doing well. We’re growing; we’re being heard. Perhaps you’re right. But there is something that is, or should be, unique about the Church, the Body. We’re supposed to be one; we shouldn’t have to make distinctions between the good and the bad like this. Some things are so obviously out of synch with the character of the Church that the temptation to engage in them should be dismissed out of hand. This grab for notoriety and power simply should not be happening at all.

It all comes down to this. We should be turning away from the path to fame and fortune and finding our way to the narrow path, the path to service, grace, and humility. That, as they say in the corporate world, is the bottom line.


James Fletcher Baxter said...

God is no respecter of persons - or personages.

As always, our choices transparently and obviously demonstrate our personally-held value system.

Our treatment of our fellow creatures verifies whether we see them as unique and rare Individuals - or by the collective; the group.

Prior to the coming of the Lord, the world's way of valuing humans was and still is "by the group."

Jesus validated each Individual - and still does.

Thus, the world-system is always and forever at war with God's way. There is no middle-ground; no place of compromise.

Of course, the world says there is: meet us half-way. Half-way is collectivism.

Every human value system that measures by the group is not of God.

Tell 'em: "Get real. Choose God's way."

The world's way is illusory: Groups are merely verbal conveniences about Individuals - not Reality!

Choose Reality.

"Got Criteria?"
Psalm 25:12 119:30,173

+ + +

John Zimmer said...

Nice post, Phil. You call our attention to an important issue-- our alien status-- and how it should affect our thought and behavior.

John Zimmer said...

Nice post, Phil. You bring our attention to an important issue-- our alien status-- and how it should affect our thought and behavior.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. You have articulated that which I have thought for a long time. --Hawkeye Gold

Viking Spirit said...

You are right on with this piece Phil...nice work! We all fall prey to puffed-up self importance now and again, but I would think there in Kansas a simple glance upward on a starry night would set you right.

I shouldn't fret over the trend you speak of. It's always been here and it is, to some, irresistable. With our aim always to satisfy Matthew 22:37-39 though, we will retain/regain our proper place in the universe.