The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

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Glorious Anonymity

Pop artist Andy Warhol once predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A look at modern culture suggests that Warhol was almost right. It would be more accurate to say that now everyone “wants to be” world-famous for 15 minutes, to “go viral.” To be famous, or even infamous, seems to be the pinnacle of individual achievement. Somehow we must set ourselves apart from the crowd.

Though we struggle to imagine conceiving of ourselves any other way, this striving for individuality and recognition is a relatively recent development in Western society and doesn’t exist in many other cultures even today. Just a few centuries ago, the individual was not the basic unit of society, groups and classes were.

One manifestation of this absorption of the individual into the collective is the anonymity in which clerks and artists plied their trades. Legal documents bear only the individual’s position not their name, or at best, an initial. The design and execution of major public works was accomplished without attribution. With exasperation, Walter Ullmann, a medieval historian rants:

Who conceived Ely Cathedral? Who was the architect of Strasbourg Cathedral? Who were the builders of the dozens of magnificent monuments? To be told that this work comes from the school of Reichenau and that work from the school of St. Albans, and so on, is really no substitute for an identification of the individual who composed and executed or illuminated this or that manuscript. (33)

For our self-soaked mindset, it seems impossible that these people would leave no trace of their involvement in these magnificent works. We must have recognition and we must have it now.

In general, Ullmann writes with an historian’s circumspection. But on this point, the stark difference between that time and our own prompts a brief, damning editorialization. He writes, “Today when a new apartment house goes up, the name of its architect is splashed all over the papers but in coming ages neither the architect nor his building will be remembered, while after so many centuries medieval productions still evoke justifiably great admiration” (33) Compared to the art and architecture of earlier ages, our modern world creates very little that anyone will still be marveling at centuries hence. But we always know who did it. We make plaques listing donors, name legislation after its proponents, and turn artists into household names.

There are two types of glory at work here. One is broad, brief, and evanescent. The other is lasting and deep, but anonymous. As Christians we are not immune to the thought practices of our culture. Are we looking for recognition now of who we are and what we’ve done, even religiously? If so, Jesus would say, “You have your reward.” Or are we willing to work anonymously to contribute to the building of a kingdom that will not fade away?

*The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Problematic Presence

In a recent sermon, our pastor affirmed that “God is always with us.” He is on sure biblical ground: “He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

In each of those cases, the expression of God’s sure presence with us is given to inspire action. In Deuteronomy God’s presence is the basis for the call to be “strong and courageous.” In Matthew, Christ’s presence undergirds the Great Commission. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s presence should help us “Keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have.” God is with us and knowledge of his presence enables action. So far, so good.

But there is a deep problem with the presence of God: it’s “absence.” It is unseen and unfelt. It is unapparent or transparent. We rarely if ever feel the presence of God. We live in an era that prizes seeing and feeling. But God’s presence doesn’t usually cooperate with our preference. Even moments that we interpret as experiences of divine presence—say a meaningful worship moment—leave us with the lingering suspicion that they could just as easily be interpreted as a nothing more than a “good feeling.”

And it has always been thus. Even though we think of the biblical times as a period of regular, obvious divine activity, actual manifestations of God’s presence were very rare and usually exceedingly uncomfortable (think Israel at Sinai or Isaiah 6). The fact is, throughout human history, most of God’s people, pre- or post-Christ, have rarely experienced the presence of God in a tangible way.

What are we to do? Must we just believe in God’s presence by brute “spiritual” force? Perhaps an image may help.

We might think of God’s presence like radioactivity. Its effects are present without immediately being seen or felt. It is powerful. It can even be dangerous. In certain contexts, say, Chernobyl, we ignore its presence to our peril. We don’t think about radioactivity all the time, of course, nor do we walk around with Geiger counters. But we know it exists and know that there are times and places when awareness of it and attention to it are advisable, (e.g. you wear that heavy apron when the dentist takes an x-ray).

Like radioactivity, acknowledging, assuming God’s presence in our lives and living in light of it has a cumulative effect over time. Obviously, in the case of God, the effects are positive as opposed to the often-negative effects of exposure to radioactivity. In fact, I believe living assuming the presence of God makes us increasingly able to identify those rare moments when He makes is presence especially known.

God is always with us. Will you often feel it or see it? No. But cultivate the practice of assuming it. You’ll be better for it.

The Ties that Bind

“Blood is thicker than water,” we say to indicate that family ties are deeper than any other human bond. This is often true even against our best efforts. In a time in which many people have conflicted relationships with their family, family obligations still manage to pull harder than any other.

But what is thicker than blood? A repeated theme in the NT is that bonds within the body of Christ supersede those of our families. Indeed, the image of the body—disparate parts held together in one whole—recalls Scripture’s affirmation that husbands and wives become “one flesh.” But what is it that binds us to one another as believers?

This is an important question in our current environment. Our society is increasingly described as “fragmented.” With the decline of community and the failure of family, people are desperately in search of collectives to be a part of. They turn to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or some other identity to find community. But these new collectives often fragment as quickly as they form, riven by yet more internal differences.

Like so many other areas of our lives, for many people today, what binds them to a church is nothing other than their choice. If they like the product being offered, accept the beliefs of the church, and have some affinity for a few others in the congregation, they will likely stay. For a while. With so little linking them with others, it is not surprising that people so easily separate from a congregation in search of a new one.

But what if something deeper is binding us? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice the two words regarding our connection: unity and bond. He goes on to specify wherein their unity was found: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (4-6).

The series of “ones” that we read here should give us pause in our casual attitude toward church affiliation. We are members of the one (body of) Christ. We are united in the one Holy Spirit. We are united by looking forward to one hope—the completion of God’s plan for humanity. We bow before the throne of one King. We all have faith in the same thing. We have been baptized into a single reality—the death and resurrection of Christ. We share a Father and so are one family.

One might claim that this is just talking about some hidden spiritual connection to the universal body of Christ. There is no doubt that this is true. But what use is something that we don’t feel or see and that has no material effect whatsoever? How should that “mystical, spiritual” reality manifest itself in our lives?

This deep, multi-faceted connectedness with the body of Christ should manifest itself in our relationship to our congregation and to individuals within it. It should be characterized by deep commitment to one another, shared joy and sorrow, generosity, and a great reluctance to quickly separate from one another.

What’s thicker than blood? Your “choice?” Or Gospel glue?

The Morality of Manners

“Chivalry is dead,” it is often said and, apparently, civility was right behind it. The savagery that hid behind anonymity in the online comment sections in the early history of the internet, has metastasized first to public posts on platforms like Twitter, and then to the public square as seen in the recent disruptions in the Senate confirmation hearings. People are angry, vicious. The word ‘incivility’ doesn’t begin to capture it.

“Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?” we might ask. The Golden Rule was stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That much is frequently quoted, often in the simpler, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But have you heard the rest of the verse? The verse concludes, “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” For Jesus, the Golden Rule was not a stand-alone principle but, rather, rooted in the rich soil of God’s revelation of his covenant relationship with humanity. You may recall that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets in a different way elsewhere: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for neighbor is dependent upon love for God. And love for neighbor is based upon seeing ourselves and our neighbors as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity (James 3:9). The roots of the Golden Rule are in all of God’s instructions on how to live in harmony with Him and others.

Common civility is a fragile flower that cannot survive on its own. Cut from the root of a deeper system of morality and nourished by little more than the water of cultural sentiment, it was destined to fade in time. You cannot cut the summary of the Law and Prophets off from the Law and the Prophets and hope that it will still bloom. If the prevailing philosophy is of self-advancement, self-preservation, self-creation, the Golden Rule and civility more broadly can only function self-servingly. It will be about me rather than about you.

Manners manifest morality in miniature. Courtesy, civility, gratitude, patience, and deference are the fragrant bouquet gathered from plants rooted in a right understanding of our relationship to God, a deep appreciation of the value of others, and an honest assessment of our own frailty. That is to say, these virtues find their most natural root in the message of the Gospel. The glory of God, the brokenness of humanity, the elevation of human worth implied by Christ’s sacrifice, and the invitation to live out the unmerited “civility” of God.

Rebel Territory

One of the disagreements between the North and South during the American Civil War was the status of the Southern states. Southern politicians believed themselves to have completely severed themselves from the Union and proceeded accordingly, establishing their own government. For his part, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states the right to secede and so, treated with the Confederacy not as a free-standing political entity but rather as an insurrection. He even went so far as to approve the formation of a “Unionist Government-in-exile” in Virginia and installed “military governors” in several Confederate states to carry on government business as if secession had never occurred. And, of course, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exercised the authority he believed he had to free slaves throughout the Union, not just in the North. This distinction in the South’s status was no mere political quibbling. Southern ambassadors pressed their case for official state recognition before European governments even as Northern dignitaries urged foreign powers to regard the South as in rebellion.

We might see in this situation an image of the relationship between the Kingdom of God and his enemies. Though God has apparently ceded a certain amount of authority and power to “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, and though the Enemy thought highly enough of his power to offer Christ “all the kingdoms of the world” (Mt. 4:8), the absolute affirmation of Scripture is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).

Like Lincoln, God does not actually believe that any created reality—human or spiritual—has the authority or right to secede from under his authority. Each exorcism in the ministry of Jesus reclaimed human territory from the enemy that belonged to God.

Continuing the analogy, we might see the church as those “military governors” or as a “government-in-exile”, living in compromised territory but under orders from the true Lord of the land, to carry out his business. In Jesus Christ he has announced an Emancipation Proclamation that applies to all those enslaved in sin throughout his many territories, a proclamation he calls the church to promulgate. This seems to be the imagery at work in Ephesians as Paul exhorts the church to clothe herself in the armor of the Lord and to stand.

The earth is the Lord’s. He has no intention of giving it up. Though the advances and retreats of the Kingdom of God on earth are at times as disconcerting for the faithful as were the defeats and losses of the North during the Civil War, we should take great comfort in the fact that though we reside in rebel territory, no defeat is final, and victory has been secured through Jesus Christ.

Back to School

In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD.” We may not often think of God as teacher, but it is a frequent them in the Psalms. Nearby Psalm 25:8 says that God instructs sinners in “the way” because He is “good and upright.” In Psalm 119, the psalm so focused on God’s word, God is repeatedly depicted as teacher, perhaps most directly in v. 68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes” (see also 12, 33, 66, 124, and 135).

While perhaps not common to us, this view of God is not surprising when one considers that the word “Torah”, the textual heart of Israel’s relationship with God, means “instruction” as well as “law.” We tend to regard the Torah as Law in a legal sense and therefore see God as Lawgiver and Judge. But the Hebrews saw the law as God’s divine gift of instruction for peaceful living (Deut. 4:7-8) and God as its ultimate teacher. The teaching of the Law held an important place in the life of Israel and was one of the key responsibilities of the Levites.

The view of God as teacher makes further sense when one considers the NT. One of the most frequent designations for Jesus in the Gospels is “Teacher.” This described what Jesus did—and he did a lot of teaching—but also defined his relationship to his followers. They were his students, his disciples. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” (Matt. 10:25). Not only was Jesus an authoritative teacher, one of the main roles that he indicated that the Holy Spirit would fill was that of teacher: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Interestingly, Jesus warned his Disciples against vaunting themselves over others by calling themselves teachers (as the Pharisees did) precisely because there is only one True Teacher: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

As God’s Word himself, Christ has much to teach us by his Spirit through the written word. God IS both Lawgiver and Judge, but it can be stifling to interact with him primarily in that way, especially in prayer. While the Psalmists certainly related to God in that way, they also presented present an alternative: Engaging with him as Teacher, his word as the instruction, and themselves as his students.

I believe the Psalmists invite us to share this perspective. We should pray with them, “O Lord, teach me your ways.” In fact, all the more so. For in Christ the curriculum has become more clear, and in the Spirit the Teacher more accessible.