Two Voices, One Reminder

This week I got a reminder from someone who loves me and desires God’s best for me that it is very possible when someone is highly committed to something to use language that makes it seem that everyone should be equally committed to precisely the same thing. That is not what I do believe, but since communication involves both a sender and a receiver, it’s important to consider this kind of feedback.

I got a second dose of that this morning while reading my latest “stretch” book, “I Must Resist, Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” Rustin was a black, gay, communist turned socialist, conscientious objector, civil rights leader whose career extended from the 1940’s thru the 1970s.

He had heavy Quaker influences and objected to all violence to achieve political ends. This meant that at his draft hearing he refused to go to war but also refused to participate in the alternative but still war supporting camps the government made available for conscientious objectors. He was sent to prison and worked hard to bring change to a prison system that was still segregated in every way possible.

He would often get in trouble there – sometimes unnecessarily. Once, his friend and mentor A.J. Muste sent Rustin a stinging rebuke of how he was allowing himself to get in the way of their mission. It rang true to the dangers I face as well, although in a very different context. The entire letter is worth reading for those pursuing humility, but here’s one part:

A third consideration – you want to hang onto shreds of self respect, and that means you want to continue to feel superior to somebody at least, because it is by  comparing itself with other people that the unregenerate self manages to keep a good opinion of itself. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” So you have a mental image of certain people as conspirators, bureaucrats, etc. Toward the individuals on whose faces you plant these masks you can be haughty or arrogant. You can completely forget the complexities of their task, the opposition which they may have to encounter.

Rustin’s friend was saying that part of the job of someone trying to bring systemic change is to empathize with those who have not yet changed in the way Rustin wanted. As I think about what I see as conservative evangelical churches contentedness in being a white, middle class movement I also need to consider how hard it would be on a church leader who genuinely felt like a directional change was necessary. Doing so will not only grow my heart for those brothers and sisters and remind me that at one time I was one of them, it will put me in a better position to help them anticipate the practical challenges they might face and overcome them.

(The book has been really interesting and I’m looking forward to finishing it and writing the review.)

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Being one of the chosen ones

It’s been a while since I’ve written but I got an exclusive invitation the other day and couldn’t wait to write about it. It was a surprise just for me. Hotwire, a company I’ve used at least once or twice, sent me a super secret exclusive deal. I know that only a few people were chosen to receive it and I am one of the fortunate ones based on my lack of loyalty to them and inattention to all their other communication.

Why would they send me an email making it seem like I was specially picked to be one of their chosen few? What is it about this approach that their marketing people think is more attractive than simply presenting the facts?

I think it’s that everyone wants to be thought of as special. It’s like the poll of drivers in Ireland where 69% of the 15,000 motorists surveyed during the latest AA Motor Insurance said they would rate their own driving as above average.  Inversely only 0.8% described their driving as below par. This is of course a statistical impossibility, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the reality we deal with every day.

This quest for significance has crept into the church as well. People want to be well thought of and others want to follow people who they think well of. There is something about being “important” or “special” that brings out the worst in people.

That’s why I find such irony in the words of the man of whom Jesus said “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” What was John’s testimony look like? He insisted that he must decrease and Jesus must increase. John was incredibly significant but he didn’t seek it out and was quick to give it up.

This quest for is alluring and covert. Very rarely will someone, especially someone in the church, say “my goal is to do whatever it takes to make me look great in the eyes of others,” and yet it happens all around us and in us regularly.

Some questions I have found helpful in diagnosing whether my motivation for something is driven by a quest for my own significance or Jesus’ greatness:

  • What’s the worst thing that would happen if I didn’t pursue this thing?
  • What is the aspect of serving others that is driving my decision?
  • Is there a way to accomplish exactly the same thing without my name being involved?
  • As I recount a story, am I including only those details absolutely necessary to convey the message and point people to Jesus (This catches me up a lot as I include comments about my role or international travels or some other accomplishment when it isn’t really necessary.)
  • Do I feel like I deserve or am entitled to my desired outcome because of something I did or who I am?

One of the biggest tragedies of our quest for significance is that according to John the Baptist, our joy is tied not to our significance but to Jesus’. John didn’t see a decreased role in the Kingdom as something to mourn but something to rejoice in because it meant that the fulfillment of all God’s promises – Jesus the groom coming for His bride the church – was at hand.

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30 ESV)