In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”Continue reading “The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak”
When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.
I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.
When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.
These days heroes are hard to come by.
These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.
In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”
But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.
I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?
In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.
He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.
Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.
He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.
Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.
If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain
For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”
Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.
It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.
In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah 13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.
John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.
When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.
I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.
It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.
As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.
It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”
On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.
The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
In his essay entitled “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry writes about the difference between a path and a road. “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity” he explains. Paths are an adaption to the landscape. Instead of going through the mountain, you go around it. They are a result of the interaction between a community’s habitual motion, familiarity with its location, and the passage of time. As a rule, paths are not forged, they evolve. They are formed not so much by consensus as by congregation. A path represents the collective habit of a community as it moves in response to its environment. It often represents a community’s collective wisdom imprinted upon the landscape about the best route to take.
A road is something else. According to Berry, a road is a kind of resistance to the landscape. “Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement but haste” he explains. “Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort.”
Berry is talking about the ways we relate to our environment but he could just as easily have been writing about styles of leadership. Those who lead by path begin with a sense of place. They want to understand the cultural landscape and the habit of those they lead. They may sometimes feel a sense of urgency but they are not in a rush. Those whose leadership style is more like the road are simply trying to get from point A to point B. They want to achieve their objectives in the most direct and quickest way possible. This is especially true in a leadership environment which quantifies success. Calculation lends itself to impatience. Such leaders want to see improvement and they want to see it now.
Today’s church leaders seem to be more interested in building roads than following paths. They tend to focus on goals more than on people. More often than not, the habit of the congregation is regarded as an obstacle to be removed rather than an environment which must be understood. Because they are not interested in the congregational landscape, this sort of church leader reduces place to mere space. Their leadership is based on a list of objectives which they carry from one church to another. The location does not seem to matter. They are not interested in the culture of the congregation. Because they are in a hurry, they do not take the time to adapt to the landscape. As a result, the changes they implement often turn out to be superficial.
A road is convenient but it makes its way in the world by enacting a kind of violence on the landscape. Berry explains, “The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; the modern road by the destruction of topography.” It is probably not an accident that the Interstate Highway System in the United States was essentially a military precaution, designed to facilitate the movement of troops from one end of the country to another.
The allure of the road is speed. The challenge of the path is its leisure. In more than thirty years of leadership, I have spent most of my effort building roads. In my sixty-five years as a person, I have spent most of my time following paths. All things considered, I think the path is probably better.
Wendell Berry has pointed out that most eaters these days are passive consumers. “They buy what they want–or what they have been persuaded to want–within the limits of what they can get” Berry explains. “They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged.” It seems as though we can get almost anything but that does not necessarily mean that we can always get what we want. We can only get what is made available to us. It certainly does not mean that we can always get what we really need or what is good for us. Berry points out that specialization of production leads to specialization of consumption. To explain how this affects our eating, Berry points to the entertainment industry as an analogy: “Patrons of the entertainment industry, for example, entertain themselves less and less and have become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers.”
Anybody who has spent hours scanning the vast selection offered by their cable provider, only to give up in disgust or settle for something they have already watched once or twice before and for which they are paying too much, will understand his point. Just as we have lost the capacity to entertain ourselves and must now settle for options chosen for us by the entertainment industry, we have also lost the ability to eat for ourselves. We are dependent upon food that has been selected and prepared for us by those who are far more interested in our wallet than our health, despite the nutritional information on the back of the package. We are what Berry calls industrial eaters. “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical–in short, a victim.”
Eating and the economy are obviously linked. We must buy our daily bread since most of us do not produce it for ourselves. Those who do produce food are in the business of selling it. But eating is a matter of economy in a much larger and more theological sense. The term economy comes from the Greek word for household. It speaks of more than buying or selling. An economy is really an ecosystem. It is part of a larger whole. In this respect, every community is also an economy. Daily bread is much more than an individual act of consumption, it is a community enterprise.
The communal implications of eating are in evidence all through Scripture. They are embedded in the Law of Moses, which required growers to leave behind the grain that was dropped in order to provide for the poor (Lev. 19:9–10; cf. Ruth 2). They are implied in the biblical rule of hospitality, an exercise which always involved eating (Rom. 12:13; 16:23; 1 Tim. 5:10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). The link between eating and communion was especially evident in the practice of sacrificial meals. Several of Israel’s sacrifices involved eating in God’s presence. This was most vividly portrayed in Exodus 24, which describes how the elders of Israel ate and drank in God’s presence. In 1 Corinthians 10:18 Paul calls those who offered such sacrifices participants in the altar. In saying this he seems to be drawing a parallel with the Lord’s Supper in an effort to persuade the Corinthians to pagan idol feasts (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 21).
Eating is a communal activity that is tied to the means of production and the well-being of the community at large but it is also a sacred act. In other words, our problem is more than the fact that we have been turned into industrial eaters. Our chief difficulty is that we have become secular eaters. We fail to see the connection between God and our daily bread. Food is still a common feature of the church’s life, but eating is not generally viewed as a context in which we experience fellowship with God. We expect to have fellowship with others but God is mostly on the sidelines when we eat. Indeed, we do not even see our observation of the Lord’s Supper as a meal in any real sense. We regard it as a valuable symbol but do not consider it to be spiritually sustaining in any meaningful way.
In the Genesis account, we find that four of the most fundamental aspects of human life are interrelated: the need for daily bread, work, community life, and fellowship with God. They were not originally the separate and unrelated spheres which we so often experience today. It is just here that Jesus chooses to engage with us on this subject. He does not speak about our quest for daily bread from the comfort of Eden before the fall. He faces it head-on in the broken world in which we now must make our way. His message to us is that the God who provided for our needs in the garden continues to provide for us in the fallen world. He teaches us to pray that our Heavenly Father will provide our daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). He tells us not to be anxious about what we will eat, drink, or wear because our heavenly Father knows we need these things (Matt. 6:31-32).
But how can we not be anxious in a world where the ground that bears its fruit also produces thorns and thistles and where we must eat our bread by the sweat of our brow? Jesus does not say that our daily bread will come without effort, but rather that we must not think about these things like orphans. “Thank God that this Father is so compassionate and realistic that he appraises the little things in our life (included a warm sweater and our daily bread) at exactly the same value that they actually have in our life” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “Thank God that he accepts us just as we are, as living men, with great dreams, but also with many little desires and fears, with hunger and weariness and the thousand and one pettinesses and pinpricks of life that fill even the lives of the great of this earth (one need only to read their memoirs).” Give us this day our daily bread.
I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church. At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.
I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.
In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.
The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.
Wendell Berry writes that a farmer’s connection to the farm often begins in love: “One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, ‘If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.’ These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.”
I would contend that something similar happens to the pastor who dreams of a different kind of future for the church. Like Berry’s farmer, thoughts of what could be drive sleep from us. Night falls and our work is only beginning. We imagine and plan. We create whole new worlds in our mind, striding across the landscape like giants. Until our spouse, weary from our tossing and sighing, tells us to either give it a rest or sleep somewhere else.
Yet if it is to be realized, this imagined future must be shaped as much by reality as it is by vision. “One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions,” Berry explains, “but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals.” As powerful as vision is in motivating us to work for change, the change that eventually comes to pass usually differs from that which we initially imagined. Our dreams are transformed as we come to terms with the reality of our environment. Berry sees this as a necessary correction, one which “gradually removes one’s self from one’s line of sight.”
In saying this, Berry has uncovered the dirty little secret of most vision work. Vision is often as much about us as it is about the future, a fact which explains why so many visionary leaders also turn out to be narcissists.
There is, thankfully, a corrective built into the vision process, which is simply this: every leader is dependent upon others to bring the vision to pass. These “others,” usually consisting of the congregation, meddle with our dream. They resist it. Shatter it. Then eventually recast it in their own image. The result, if we are patient enough to wait and humble enough to submit, is often something even we would not have imagined.
What do you think are some of the “best practices” for drawing stakeholders into the vision process?
How do you deal with the natural frustration that often arises when those stakeholders re-shape and change your vision?