Monday, May 15, 2017

The Real Task

One Saturday morning a mother decides to make pancakes for her 2 little boys. She is doing it the old-fashioned way: with a mix and a griddle. Belonging to the microwave generation, her kids start getting impatient. Seeing that Mom can only make one pancake at a time, they begin arguing over who will get the first one.

I'm the oldest; I should get it,” says one boy.

Well, I'm the baby, so I should get it,” says the other.

To head off an escalation of the conflict, Mom says, “You know what Jesus would say, if he were here?”

No,” says the older boy.

What would he say?” asks the younger.

He'd say, 'I love my brother so much, I want him to have the first pancake.' What do you think about that?”

Yeah, that's good,” replies the older boy. Turning to his little brother, he says, “You be Jesus!”

That's the problem with the world in a nutshell. Everyone wants someone else to be the good guy and to make the sacrifice. Everyone wants to get the best of the deal. Nobody wants to suffer. Not even fanatics. Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics, killing 2 and injuring 120 in the name of the pro-life movement. He hid in the woods for 5 years. Then he made a deal with authorities so he wouldn't face the death penalty—so he will continue to live. He was willing to kill for his cause but not to die for it. That's not nobility; that's cold-blooded calculation. He's pro-life, all right: pro-his-life!

The leaders of terrorist groups are always more willing to encourage suicide bombers than they are to risk their own lives. But that's true of all leaders. Gone are the days when generals or kings led their troops into battle. Gone are the days when leaders took responsibility for anything that happened on their watch. A huge company is exposed as riddled with corruption and unethical business practices, and the last thing you can expect to hear is the C.E.O. taking the blame. The man who was paid millions for his leadership is suddenly utterly unaware of the actions of his management team.

It's always been this way. Genesis tells us that after the first sin came the first finger-pointing. The man blamed his wife and his wife blamed the snake. From the beginning the rule has been: get someone else to take the risks and the blame. For some this comes easily.

In her book The Sociopath Next Door Harvard psychologist Martha Stout cites the chilling statistic that 4% of the population have no conscience. A sociopath, like the more organized psychopath, is a person who cannot develop emotional bonds with others. In neurological tests their brains show no more response to words like “love,” “mother,” or “pet” than to “table,” “window,” or “toaster.” Unable to feel emotional attachments or obligations, these people can do anything without the slightest remorse. Some, obviously, become criminals, but most learn to fit in by becoming excellent actors. They are often immensely charming and masters of manipulating people whom they see as hamstrung by their consciences. They can talk people into taking the risks and even the blame for them. People are pawns to them. If they treat you well, it's simply because you are useful to them. They may even marry if it suits their schemes, but neither love nor faithfulness is an option for them. Because they are experts at gaming society's rules, if they have ambition, sociopaths can go far. History shows us that, under the right circumstances, they can even become the leaders of nations.

It can make you wonder: what could you accomplish if you didn't care who got hurt, who got blamed, who got lied to and betrayed? Of course the price for such freedom of action is high. You would not be able to love or feel love. Your spouse might be beautiful or handsome but you would have no more feeling for them than for a sports car or a nice pair of shoes. Dr. Stout recalls one sociopath who didn't visit his wife when she was deathly ill and in the hospital for 3 weeks. When she recovered, he fumed that she might lose her looks. He could not feel grateful that she was alive. In fact, had she died, he might have used that, for sociopaths love to play on people's pity. The man was not a criminal but a respected high school principal.

Since they don't get any emotional high from relationships, they occupy themselves with games of domination. If they cannot top a colleague or charm him, they will undercut him. They will play head games on others and commit meaningless cruelty just for fun. Addicted to stimulation, they will take needless risks. They are more likely than the general population to use drugs and alcohol because, without love, they have nothing to fill their empty lives.

But you needn't be a sociopath to want someone else to be the one to give in or take the fall. Because being good can be painful, or even fatal. Our passage from Acts is an extremely abbreviated account of the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

We don't know a lot about Stephen but we do know that he was not one to let someone else do the right thing. He was one of the first deacons. The word comes from the Greek for “server” or, in modern parlance, “waiter.” Deacons in synagogues were responsible for gathering alms to be distributed to the poor—widows, orphans and the sick. So Stephen was a man who served others, especially the less fortunate members of the church. Normally he wouldn't have caught the eye of Christianity's enemies. But Stephen was a gifted speaker and a worker of signs and wonders. It is probable that these included healings. Previously, only the apostles did such things. Stephen may have been seen as a rising star, and since his duties took him to the homes of the poor, he was an easy person to seize. Accused of blasphemy, he was hauled before the Sanhedrin. His eloquent defense takes up almost the whole of chapter 7 of Acts. We only get the last sentence and his murder seems harsh and abrupt. But had he kept his mouth shut, he might have lived. Instead, he dies, like Jesus, even asking God to forgive his killers.

Stephen could have let someone else stand out. He could have left the preaching to the apostles. He could have backed down. But he didn't insist that someone else be Jesus. He realized that, at that time and in that circumstance, the role had fallen to him.

In fact, this is what post-ascension Christianity is about. We needed Jesus to come and show us what God is like. We needed him to die for our sins. We needed him to defeat death and our fear of death. But why didn't he stay and establish the kingdom of God? Because the kingdom is not an external thing. It can't be imposed. True righteousness can't be coerced.

The kingdom, or royal reign of God, begins by inviting his Spirit into one's heart and then letting him into every aspect of one's life. It's letting him dig out and restore that image of God buried in each of us, under all the crud we once thought was more important. The Spirit makes us ever more Christlike and better citizens of the kingdom of God. The kingdom spreads by our living out and proclaiming the good news of God's love and forgiveness. It's not that Jesus wasn't ready to establish the kingdom. The world wasn't ready. Getting it to that point is our task.

Jesus didn't stay and hold our hand during the process. He gave us his Spirit and let us go in order to grow. That's the way any child develops into an adult. At some point, the parent has to let the child start making choices and taking responsibility. This doesn't mean cutting off communication but giving the child the opportunity to internalize what he has seen and heard. There is nothing more reassuring to a parent than to hear his child recount how she made a good decision by herself.

Like I said, the lines of communication are always open. We can bring anything that bothers us to God. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Another passage says that he suffered as he was tempted. That means he knows our fears, our urges, our desires and our pains. So we can confide everything to him. And we can take comfort and strength from the fact that he was able to conquer them.

But the task to spread the word and the kingdom of God is ours. And the way we do it is by being Jesus. Paul said, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who...[took] the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:5, 7) God knew that the best way to communicate his love was in terms that we could understand, ie, in the form of a human being, Jesus. And that's still the best way to show his love—in our human lives as we follow Jesus. Part of that is taking up our crosses: making sacrifices, doing what is right and loving even when it is difficult and painful. In other words, we are to be Jesus to those around us.

As Jesus taught the nature of God's reign, we are to teach. As Jesus reached out to the marginalized and the outcast, we are to reach out. As Jesus stood up to those in power, we are to stand up. As Jesus confronted sin, we are to confront. As Jesus forgave, we are to forgive. As Jesus healed the sick and suffering, we are to heal. As Jesus nurtured his community, we are to nurture.

And in that way we grow into his image. In that way we reflect his glory. It's not easy. It is not always fun. But we cannot stay infants and children forever. We cannot avoid what we were created to do and still stay true to what we are to become.

To put it another way: want the world to be a more just and loving place? Want it to be a more holy and forgiving place? Don't look for someone else to do it for you. You be Jesus. If you do it right, it will be infectious. And someone will be Jesus to you when you need him.

Life is not a game to win. The point isn't who gets the most or who gets the first pancake. And besides, it's not the pancakes we will remember—it's the time spent sharing them with those we love which will stay with us all our lives. And it is the hope that we will be seated together at the wedding feast of the Lamb that motivates us to be living invitations to his kingdom. 

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