One of my favourite songs is Bowie’s “We could be heroes.” Allow me to quote my favourite part:
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
I believe we all need something or even someone to beat, a challenge to rise to that gives life extra significance. Perhaps that is why when Jesus calls us to take up our roman death and torture device (read; cross) and follow him, it is weirdly attractive.
The amount of money that the latest ‘Avenger’s’ movie made is proof that we love heroes and we crave significance, otherwise we wouldn’t spend money on living our dreams through the literary avatars of Iron Man and Captain America.
I have recently been listening to some podcasts featuring Mike Erre, Skye Jethani and Phil Vischer, talking about the cataclysmic ‘fall of the heroes’ that we’ve seen in the western evangelical church over the past decade or so. It has struck me all of a sudden that some names that were once mentioned in churches with excitement when I was growing up are now causing many to wince in shame. The institutions that seemed eternal have been shown to be as fragile as ice crystals.
Thus on a recent drive to the shops, I asked my wife this question:
“In our church tradition, besides being Christlike, what people/sort of people do we celebrate the most?”
She eventually answered words to the effect of “Powerful, dynamic church leaders, great preachers, especially people who have won lots of people to Christ.” In terms of names that come to mind; the people that are the biggest ‘heroes’ of modern western evangelicalism are roughly Billy Graham and Rick Warren. (That by the way is in no way having a crack at them. It’s not their fault that they’re gifted.) This is just a conversation in the car, but you get where I’m going.
I think Jethani’s right. We idolise effectiveness, even when those we idolise never asked for it. This is all in spite of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, where there are a heap of ‘effective’ people turning up on the last day that he tells to get out of his sight.
Still, we keep running schools, seminars, conferences and programs designed to get people and ministries more ‘effective’. nothing wrong with effectiveness of course, but there’s been a scary imbalance.
This has led me to ask I think one of the most important questions that I ever asked for my own spiritual development and I implore you to ask it with me now.
“Aside from Jesus, whom did our ancient early Christian brothers and sisters really look up to/celebrate?”
Have a think about it for a moment.
Now, I have finally made it to the final part of N.T. Wright’s survey of the theme of resurrection in his book ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God“. This final survey is of early Christian thought and is therefore a great summary of the writings of the early church fathers such as Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp etc. As I was reading through the survey of such writings, the penny dropped with an almighty clang.
The ‘heroes’ of the early church were; wait for it, the martyrs.
Think about that. We used to celebrate martyrs over great preachers, leaders and writers. Now, we basically don’t care because martyrdom as a concept is a bit rough on the marketing side of things. I have to say that, because this abandonment can’t be due to the lack of martyrdom. There’s more people killed for their faith in Jesus than in any other time in history and way, way more media to report it.
But, the ancient church understood that you don’t beat the forces of darkness forever and ever through highly polished professionalism and slick programs, but through the embracing weakness, even the weakness of mortality. It understood that we’re not called to be powerful, but to the giving up of power.
Effectiveness means you can enjoy the earthly results. Martyrdom dismisses any ‘results’ into God’s hands and you’re certainly not around to enjoy them. Effectiveness wins you the admiration of human beings. Martyrdom transports you to the presence of Jesus. In fact I think that is the crux of it. We’re not talking about a church that was one massive suicide cult or that people longed for death but we are talking about an entire movement that saw being with the Lord, in this life or the next as the ultimate goal and desire of being a Christian.
Yet here we sit in an age where the internal character of whom we thought were ‘great leaders’ has been weighed and found wanting.
I’m not writing this preaching. I am writing this repenting.
We become like the heroes we……worship. The penny dropped with a clang because I have run so hard at the polished effectiveness goal for so much of my Christian life and yet it now I see that it is precisely the thing that has often left me so exhausted.
But there’s deep rest hidden in the concept of martyrdom that’s hard to articulate without sounding like a maniac. We never wish death upon ourselves because we recognise the only God knows that time and the hour of our passing and that is his prerogative alone. But it is somehow comforting to know that so much bigger is God than any of our minuscule gifts, that the most powerful witness of him through us comes at the moment of our greatest conceivable weakness….not strength. If that’s true, how can there be any competition or comparison between God’s people?
As a pastor you tend to get people coming up to you asking questions like: “what does God want me to do with my life?” Here’s what I’m coming to see more and more as the correct answer:
“Here’s what he wants you to do: make every effort to ensure that if your life was demanded of you tomorrow, you would joyfully place it in his hands.”