Monday, May 29, 2017

The Enemy of Success

The primary passage of scripture referred to is 1 Peter 4:12-14. 

Several years ago I realized that of all the obstacles to success the most insidious is success itself. When a person or a group or a company become successful, they are rewarded with wealth and power, and then in order to preserve those things they face choices. What of the things they did to become successful must they drop and what must they keep doing in order to stay successful? Techniques that get you to the top are not necessarily the same as the techniques that keep you on top. Many a revolutionary warrior has proved to be a terrible ruler. And often charisma may help you get to a position of leadership but then you need character to actually lead. And confidence is not the same as competence. Success changes the game and you can't be a one-trick pony or a one-hit wonder. To maintain your success, you not only need to determine what skills and techniques you need to retain, you also need to pick up new ones and you may have to discard others. The problem is discerning between the three.

We see this in comedians like Jay Leno, who get to the top by being sharp and edgy, and then, when offered a sitcom or a talk show, must become more warm and fuzzy and above all, must not offend their wider audience. We see it in companies like Apple that take risks and are innovative until they become big and profitable and then keep tinkering with their earlier triumphs rather than create something truly new. Or we see it in movements that catch fire and achieve their goal and then cast about looking for a new cause. Like the March of Dimes, which was originally exclusively focused on polio and once that was dealt with, switched to improving maternal and infant health, premature births and infant mortality. They are doing great work but they have a much lower profile these days.

I got to thinking about this because our passage in 1st Peter is speaking to the church in a difficult time. The church today is also in a difficult time but it is a different sort of difficulty we face. The early church was small and had to deal with persecution. Depending on the specific emperor and local officials you could suffer for being a Christian. If the church had died then, it was because Christians were literally dying. Today if churches are dying, it is, I think, because we have had too great a success.

By this I don't mean that we have converted everyone; in fact, we have done a pretty bad job at that. But we did make the brand “Christian” popular, and for a while the majority of people in this country self-identified as Christians. But once it became ubiquitous, it was no longer novel or special. Now the brand is cooling and people are abandoning it for the next cool label, like neo-paganism or atheism or a vague spirituality. And I think part of this was because we made becoming a Christian too easy.

It used to be that it was harder to be a Christian. You had to become a disciple first. You had to really want to learn the faith and follow Jesus. When Christians were persecuted, that cut down drastically on the people who were just doing it for the novelty. You have to have a really deep conviction that something is the right thing to do if pursuing it can get you killed. But even after Constantine ended imperial persecution of Christians, the church would withhold baptism until after a person spent 3 years as a catechumen.

A major problem arose when missionaries were sent to the barbarian tribes throughout Europe, the same ones who eventually brought about the fall of Rome. The missionaries would go to the tribe's chieftain or king and try to convert him. If they succeeded, then he would decree that his people were now Christians and order them to get baptized. Insufficiently instructed in the faith and illiterate to boot, these converts were Christians in name only. A lot of them were pagans at heart and in some cases, their gods were smuggled into Christianity under the guise of being local saints. The Irish Saint Brigid may in fact have been a Christianized Celtic goddess.

A similar problem arose with the evangelism in the last part of the 20th century. It often used sales techniques and a simplified version of the gospel to get people to say the “Sinner's prayer” and then consider themselves saved. Now this can bring a person to follow Jesus, as it did with Barbara Brown Taylor, who was speed-converted in college by someone using a tract. Taylor wondered what had she just committed herself to and not only did she do the research but eventually became an Episcopal priest and one of the best preachers in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, many people who get a canned 4 Spiritual Laws-like presentation do not follow it up. One of the things that the Billy Graham organization used to do right was involve local churches in counselling those who came forward at his “crusades” and he always encouraged new Christians to get involved in a church.

As far as numbers were concerned, quick and painless conversions worked. As recently as 1990, 86% of Americans said they were Christian. Churches were planted with an attitude of “if you build it, they will come.” But just as 45% of eligible voters don't bother to participate in our democracy, 52% of self-identified Christians don't bother to attend church weekly. Small wonder that 3,700 churches close each year.

Success can make you complacent. Living in a country where it seems like almost everybody is a Christian has made the church take a lot of things for granted. We have not concentrated on real evangelism. We have not concentrated on making sure Christians know what they believe and why they believe it and why it matters. We have not realized that having a so-called Christian nation doesn't immunize us against injustice and corruption any more than the nations of Israel and Judea were able to remain righteous under Davidic kings. Every one of our presidents, and the vast majority of our governors, legislators and members of Congress say they are Christians. If that's true, they must take responsibility for the state of our nation.

There is one advantage to being a minority faith under persecution and that is that it causes you to focus on what is vital. Such as the fact that you have no expectation that following your faith will be easy. Our passage from 1st Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Or to put it in other words, you are saying that the King of kings and Lord of lords is not the divine emperor of Rome but a Jewish carpenter who happens to be the actual Son of God. Of course you are experiencing push-back. And remember that they crucified him. So “you are sharing Christ's sufferings...” What should your response be to this persecution, according to our passage from 1st Peter? Air your grievances? Make an issue about people saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Refuse to bake cakes for people you disagree with? Sue someone?

No. We are told to rejoice. Because we know we are on the right track; we are doing what God wants us to do. Imagine for a minute a TV evangelist telling his audience that instead of God making them rich, they can expect instead to suffer for following Jesus. Not only would it be hard for that preacher to turn around and ask for a 65 million dollar private jet, I imagine what would really suffer would be his ratings. Because that's not what modern American Christians want or expect to hear.

While individual Christians may not suffer, at least not in the West, our churches are. And part of that comes down to our success—and our worship of success. Churches are considered successful if they have lots of members, big facilities, and big budgets, just like successful companies. You rarely see churches touted as successful for simply being faithful to Jesus and doing what he told us to do: feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty, welcome the immigrant, clothe the threadbare, visit the sick and the imprisoned, love your enemy, give to all who ask, forgive others, ask for forgiveness, treat others as we wish to be treated, turn the other cheek, preach the gospel, make disciples, trust in Jesus. And such churches don't get credit for these things because they can't all be captured by metrics. For instance, I can tell you how many men, women and children I have baptized here or at the jail but I cannot tell you how many lives have been changed by my ministry. Sometimes it's the little things, the singular comment, the small act of kindness that has the greatest impact.

By buying into the world's ideas of success, we set ourselves up to fail. After all, by the world's standards our founder was a failure when he was executed at age 33. So we need to look at what the Bible sees as success.

First off it is not being rich or popular. Those are things the world cares about. But you can have those things and be spiritually or psychologically unhealthy. Howard Hughes was a billionaire who was nevertheless a physically and psychologically ill person. Hitler was a world leader who dominated much of Europe and became wealthy through sales of his book, Nazi party funds, getting royalties on his image on stamps and by having the government exempt him from taxes, and yet he was spiritually bankrupt.

Wealth has many inherent temptations: to put one's pleasures ahead of others, to increase one's riches through unethical means and to abuse the power wealth offers. Love of money is condemned by both Jesus and Paul. (Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10) What is true for wealthy people holds true for wealthy churches. Yet the Bible is not wholly anti-affluence. Paul summarizes God's attitude towards the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

So what is the Bible's definition of success? It may surprise you to find out that the word “success” only appears in scripture once! The nearest equivalent to the idea of successful in the Bible is the term “blessed,” which appears in scripture 302 times. So let's look at a few of those verses.

By the way, the Hebrew word esher can be translated as either “blessed” or “happy.” It comes from a root word that means “to be straight, right, level.” The Greek equivalent makarios also means “blessed” or “happy.” It can be translated “fortunate” or “well-off” too. But what the Bible says about being blessed or happy is different from the world's definition.

Psalm 1 says blessed is the person who delights in God's laws and does not go along with those who do wrong. Psalm 2 says blessed are they who put their trust in God's son, our King. Psalm 32 says blessed is the person whose sin God forgives. Psalm 40:4 says blessed is the one who trusts God and does not respect the arrogant, nor is diverted by lies or false gods. Psalm 41 says blessed is the one who cares for the poor. Psalm 84:5 says blessed is the one whose strength is in God.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) Jesus has a very counterintuitive list of who is blessed: those who recognize their spiritual poverty, those who mourn, those who are gentle, those who are thirsty and starving for all that is right, those who show mercy, those whose hearts are cleansed, those who make peace with others, those who are persecuted for pursuing what is right. Those are not qualities the world generally sees as signs of success. But God does.

Ultimately, we are blessed when we are in the right relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves. Those who are blessed are those whom God has made whole. And remembering that might be one way to make our churches healthier.

In 1 Peter 3:9, we are enjoined to “bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing.” We can bless the people of the world by bringing them to the wholeness that is in Jesus. When Jesus was sending out the Twelve to spread the gospel and heal, he told them : “Freely you received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) Rather than doing what the world does—assessing he who has the most of something as successful—let us see who can give the most.

What have we freely received? God's love, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Our salvation, a gift from God's grace, accessed through trust in him. His Spirit, poured out on all his people. The gifts of his Spirit, the skills and talents he has granted us to do the work he has given us to do. A people, a community, brothers and sisters in Christ, to uphold us and support our growth in Christ. That's an awful lot.

In addition, we have a building of which I am the sole mortal inhabitant most days.

So what can we do with all that we have? How can we use our God-given assets to bless others in our community? How can we pass on what we have received by God's grace to those who need what Jesus offers? That's our task. That's our challenge. We need to look at what God has graciously given us and then look at our neighbors and ask ourselves how can we show them love in specific and concrete ways. If we don't, if we fail to love our neighbor, we will die. Like thousands of other churches.

I nearly died a year and 5 months ago. I left rehab a year ago this weekend. It was not easy and I was nowhere near back to normal. But like Jacob who wrestled with the angel of the Lord, I came out it with a blessing—and a limp. Evidently God didn't want me to die. And I don't think he wants this church to die. But we have a lot of work to do if we are going to get back on our feet. 

And we won't get there by looking back longingly at what was. We need to look forward. Just as I couldn't measure my progress by how well others were doing in therapy, we can't let ourselves get caught up in envying what other churches are doing. I had to concentrate on doing what I needed to do. We need to follow the path God has laid out for us. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and push myself a little bit farther every day. We need to do the same. I had to let go of my pride and let other people help me. We need to reach out to others who can help us. I had to engage muscles I never suspected were necessary for walking. We are going to have to do things we never did before. We will have to make sacrifices. And it will hurt. But, believe me, the blessings will be worth it. 

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