Monday, February 29, 2016

The Myth of Heroic Christianity

God did not call us to be heroes. He did not challenge us to be zealots. And he did not invite us to be radicals. Instead he renamed us. He called us "saints," that is holy or set apart for him. Think of it this way: to be holy is a bit like those special dishes that were passed down to your mom that you only used once a year at Christmas. They were distinct from the everyday. They were treated with special care. God's church, God's people, are his group of saints, God's advertisement to the world.

Of course we don't look like saints. And by the way, neither did the people in churches during the first century, but Paul addressed them as "God's holy ones" nonetheless. 

However, we live with the myth that the success of the church depends upon us. And since we are far from looking like saints, the clarion call to heroic Christianity, to zealous discipleship and to radical mission looks so appealing to serious Christians. Being that the average church is so average, we must feel compelled to make sure that someone does something about that. 

This stuff will preach. It's a shame that it falls short of the truth. 

Following Jesus is about embracing our identity as saints whether we look like it or not. And the way we do this is to simply walk the path with Jesus taking the next step along the way by the presence of the Spirit. It's not about great leaps of faith, wild acts of love, or renegade efforts against the status quo. It's not about being a spectacle. It's about making space for the Spirit to help us walk the next step in the presence of Jesus. 

Heroic faith calls for success and triumph on the journey. It leaves no room for failure because heroes have to be the center of the story. Yet if there is anything I’ve learned on this journey, it is that the failures along the way teach us more than the successes. Life involves suffering. It means hitting walls and falling down. And we so often talk about getting up every time we fall, but what about when we just don't have it in us to get up again? 

We like to talk about successes in our life in Christ, but we don't talk so much about the difficulties, the failures, or when doubt or fear overwhelm us. We have bought into a triumphal view of God's kingdom that assumes God is more present when we are on the mountain than when we are in the "valley of the shadow of death." But it's in the valleys where God shapes us in ways that are not possible on the mountain tops. In the valleys God shapes our  “who-ness” to become the kind of person that is able to make room for the Spirit to move through us to love others.

There are some things that we can only learn through the school of hard knocks. Honestly, I wish this weren’t the case. I had much rather learn the right way to follow Jesus from a book or a sermon and simply avoid the personal struggle. However, God does not invite us into a rule following contract. He does not expect us to follows the five steps to being a great Christian as some kind of external standard of heroic Christianity. That only puts the work of Christ back upon us, which is not, after all, the work of Christ. He invites us to learn to love him and others, and since there is no formula for love, we are invited on a journey to have love woven into our being. This requires the work of the Spirit.

Learning to love like this will break us. There is just no other way because following Jesus involves serving others. As we serve, we begin to see that the needs are too big and our weaknesses are too great. Heroism turns serving others into a way that "I" get the attention, which is not love. Zealotry just stirs up energy that I produce something for another. Again, that's about me not the other. And radical service tries to stand out against the status quo. Yet again, that puts me at the center of attention. Such an attitude might cause us to feel like we are rising above the norm of failure, but the facade can only carry us so far. Our most heroic efforts will eventually cause us to beat against the rocks of the needs in the world, where instead of the rocks breaking, we are broken. 

We don't like this. We try to avoid it. We work harder and we search for alternative strategies. But eventually reality sets in. Brokenness prevails. 

We are not heroes. We are simply saints.

When we come to the end of ourselves, we have a choice between three options. We can be broken apart, which means that our pain controls us and usually spills out on others at their harm. We can be broken but bandaged, which means we cover up the pain while pressing on, trying to rise above. Or we can be broken open. We can embrace our brokenness and allow God to create a new future out of it. This third option is the only way to embrace our identity as saints. Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful little book called the Wounded Healer, where he writes,
“No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible. This is because a shared pain is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation. When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.

Through this common search, hospitality becomes community. Hospitality becomes community as it creates a unity based on the shared confession of our basic brokenness and on a shared hope. This hope in turn leads us far beyond the boundaries of human togetherness to Him who calls His people away from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. …

A Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength” (94).

There are no heroes on the journey with Jesus. You are not the center of the story. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). He is the protagonist of this story and we live by faith in him.

Photo Credit: Magnus Froderberg via Flickr

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