Gary runs a Christian homeless and drug and alchohol rehabilitation program. I found him five weeks ago sitting in his van in excruciating pain and took him to the emergency room. After weeks of tests, it turns out he has a bone cancer. He is in a nursing home and the prognosis is still up in the air.
Gary has led quite a colorful life but has spent the last 13 of his 64 years in Christian interfaith ministry. A lot of his dreams and goals are almost coming true. His interfaith “homeless and shut in Christmas dinner” that our parish helps with will feed over 5000 this weekend if all goes as planned. His shelter and rehab has gotten some attention and interest from a couple localities and they’ve discussed him opening similar programs in their cities. I was visiting with him and he said, “I know this might be it. In one way if I die I know I am “God ready” and I look forward to being with Christ. But in another way I think, why NOW God? ... I’m at the verge of seeing all my ministry dreams come true and You’re calling me home before everything great happens. If I could live one more year I could accomplish SO much more.”
I asked Gary to name me one person in Scripture that died thinking they had accomplished EVERYTHING God wanted them to do. I asked him to name one person who, if they had lived another month or year, would not have done even greater things for Christ. I told him that perhaps his one true purpose was to turn one particular person from the street to Christ and THAT one person will be his link to even greater things than he even imagined. I told him the geneology of Christ was full of no-name, obscure people who accomplished nothing more than getting a mention in Matthew or Luke’s Gospels, but through them salvation came into the world. I told him greatness is not in accomplishment but in faithfulness, and according to the biblical record what is counted as “faithfulness” is often not very pretty or laudable in polite and “spiritual Church society”. It was one of those out of body pastoral moments when words came from someplace else than me, it was like listening to someone else talk.
As I spoke to Gary, I was speaking to myself. I’ve wrestled more than just a little lately with continuing my involvements with a lot of ministries, and of course it would not be a wrestling match if I didn’t believe what I do is significant or important in some way. The reality is, most of us who aspire to serve the Church in some “significant way” usually self assess according to our self referenced accomplishments and goals. An internet friend and blogger who goes by the name James the Thickheaded said in a recent post:
“Do we really do ourselves any good by our ambitions to be a “somebody” in the Church? Moreover, do we do the Church any good, or those around us? I’m not convinced. And I’m certainly not convinced that ambitions of this sort – if we are candid with ourselves – necessarily amount to more than adopting a posture unconducive to our professed aspirations. Sainthood as an aspiration for ascension could perhaps be more clearly understood as a path of descent… not into nothingness, but from the sinful false images we erect of ourselves and toward real personhood.”
James is right, there is an insidious desire for a place at the head of the table disguised as “service at the table”. I don’t know of a male convert that hasn’t experienced “cassock lust” or envy. There’s just something really cool about looking like Neo stepping out of the Matrix and kicking heretic’s butts on the internet. Our egos create a false self that uses even the Church to be elevated, and it accepts even a temporary cross as a means to the end. It is too easy to adopt the “posture of humility” and speak with a fake accent of saintly self denigration with the agenda to be elevated to a high place in the eyes of men. We look to being called up to the head of the table rather than serving single mindedly with true humility in the place we’ve been called to be in the present moment. To be honest, when I came into the Church the shiny cross worn around the neck was a glittering temptation, a distraction from ascending the true cross of accepting all God gave me in the Church to form my soul: dashed hopes, thwarted dreams, unrealized aspirations, humiliation and failure. Ultimately, I know God does not “need” my ministries and my false humility, nor even my self assessed greatness. He works best through the horror of the death of the Cross. He is manifest most clearly in the lives of those who willingly or even grudgingly accept the unique death it offers to each of us. He needs people that will die to themselves and to the world in Christ and thus to live as a witness to the resurrection of true human beings. He needs unassuming human beings that are willing to be an obscure, no-name person in someone’s distant past who, because of a glimmer of faith or in an act of desperation, did one small thing in the name of God that, generations later, saved the very cosmos.
No…I’m not one of those people. I ain’t all that great.
One of my blog readers, Cameron wrote a response the original piece that I want to pass on. He says on his blog:
This is difficult to put into words–not because I’m embarrassed, but because I’m not sure how to speak of these thoughts. For most of my Christian life I have striven to be something. A leader, yes, in various roles. A nice guy. A potential mate. But it goes deeper than that. It seems to me now that I’ve spent my energy as a follower of Christ in trying to rise above my humanity, to be more than what I am or can be. Looking back over my experiences in the evangelical world, I’m surprised by how much loathing for people there is. For all the talk of love for others (where you can find it), there seems to be a general disdain for the human species under the surface–reverberations of a theology that denies or forgets the goodness of God’s creation. We are not dung. I don’t believe that.
Of course, I believe we should improve how we act, speak, think. But in my experience, such tasks easily become an external effort, as if putting on a costume, acting the part, rather than simply becoming those virtues, as dye stains wool. We feel empowered by the costume and begin to believe it’s who we really are, although no transformation has really taken place. We’re just wearing a set of clothes made for the stage, not real life. And when the gig is up, we feel disillusioned, like walking away.
The trouble is that one can only perform for so long. Sooner or later, the lines we’ve rehearsed to craft our false image become transparent, no longer able to conceal what’s really in our hearts, how we live, judge, hate. We may try a different role, to craft another persona, but the same end is inevitable. All this manifests itself in cycles of zeal and piety, self-loathing and despair, wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes excited and other times apathetic. Trying to be something for God and winding up resentful of ministry obligations, feeling the vastness of the chasm between who I am and who I have projected myself to be, the sickening gravity of standing at the edge of the abyss. Can you relate?
I hate the cycle. And I’ve realized at the heart of it is pride–the belief that I am better than I am, better than you, my wife, my friends, my family, neighbors, strangers–whether I realize it or not. I’ve found that the first in that list is the seed of all the others and is a stumbling block to true repentance. How could I have done that? I should be better than that. But you know what? I’m not. And I can’t make myself better by putting on good deeds and attitudes and leadership roles as if the clothes make the man. I’ve done that for too long. It doesn’t work.
I think at the heart of this, besides pride, is impatience. The unwillingness to accept who I am at present and to trust God to make me who I will one day become, by His grace and mercy. I have a tendency to short-change the process. It goes something like this: I read a few spiritual books, I have some great conversations with friends, and maybe I pray consistently for a week or two. Then, feeling puffed up with spiritual goodness, I do one of two things, if not both: think better of myself than I ought, and take on a spiritual project, believing there to be a readiness in my heart that does not yet exist. I want to do it all now. And I want to do the jobs I admire whether it’s good for me or not. And if I’m honest, sometimes that doesn’t become a question until the damage is already done.
All of that spiritual playacting isn’t being a human. Putting on someone else’s clothes or armor or job title won’t bring us to our true selves, our personhood, however much we admire what they do.
I want to live and not analyze or evaulate everything. There’s a time and place for self-examination. But I fear too many people I know, me included, approach their life as if shopping for costumes. We turn away from what we truly are to embrace a self as wooden as the floor in my house. That’s not transformation.
I’m tired of trying to “get ahead.” I want to make mistakes and repent and be forgiven. I want to be wise and open and loving, not defensive or detached by self-focus and inherently limited analysis. I want to be my true self, deep in my soul, my heart, in my speech and actions, however long that takes to get there–not a manufactured, calculated facade (i.e. delusion). I want to live. That’s it. I want to live in the present moment and become better by the grace and mercy of God through everyday circumstances. I want to be healed. I want to be human.
All of this grossly falls short of describing the issue at hand. I’m no teacher, and I’m not a wise man. But I think for the first time, I almost “get” that oft-quoted proverb: “Cease striving and know that I am God.” Almost.