Just like every kid growing up in the 90s, I was taught by my parents, church, and school, that I could change the world when I grew up. And so when I grew up and became a pastor, I tried my hardest. And I thought that “changing the world” was what the gospel was about.
But the more I tried to change the world, the more my world suffered. The more my mind and heart were focused on the problems in the world and how I could solve them all, single-handedly of course (with God all things are possible), the less impact I had in my family, friendships, and local community. And so, I eventually decided that for me to be faithful to the good news of Jesus I had to give up on my dream of changing the world and adopt the harsh reality of changing myself and my world.
Back in 2008 I wrote a series of lectures to be used in a seminary course on Pastoral Ministry and this process from “the” to “my” was obviously at the forefront of my thoughts as I wrote. For instance, part of the first lecture reads:
“In the American context, many pastors confuse the call of God to do “great things” with the wider culture’s obsession with celebrity. It is common to hail as hero the pastor who takes up the martyr’s cross and sacrifices his family, friends, and neighbors for the sake of writing his magnum opus that will change the face of Christianity or for the sake of going on the speaking circuit. These tasks are not necessarily bad if the pastor is able to do it out of a sincere love for Christ and if this devotion to Christ is evident by service to neighbor (which includes our family, it will do well to remember). But oftentimes what s/he has really sacrificed is the Christ mandated call to love neighbor as self for his/her own desires of celebrity and recognition or a subjective belief that God has truly called them to this or that particular task. The common sentiment to “do great things for God” can easily become a call to “do great things for myself using God.” That is to say, many will at some point use God as a scapegoat and as justification for their lust for power and celebrity in a twisted version of “don’t blame me, the devil made me do it.” Whether conscious or unconscious, it is never right for the pastor to blame his neglect of family, friends, and local community on God’s call.
I would perhaps not state it so emphatically today, but it has become more evident to me that if the Gospel is about incarnation and about giving up positions of power to be with those who have no power, then the most useful I can be to the Kingdom of God is to incarnate myself in my local community rather than trying to establish my “platform” as a Christian celebrity. If we truly believe that the Kingdom of God is upside down then we should aspire to be the unknown servant, not the keynote speaker. We should aspire to be the unnoticed servant, not the celebrated author. But I don’t. We don’t.
May I continue to learn what it means to be incarnational, to imitate the one who both lived and died as a nobody. To stop trying to be the Savior of the world and to be present with those in my world.
“Cowardice wants only to concern itself with the really important,big things, not in order to carry something out wholeheartedly but to be flattered by doing something that is noble and great. Yet hiding behind the exalted is nothing but an excuse for not conquering all the little things…”
– Soren Kierkegaard