Be Like Jesus & Let Others Serve You*

“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28

What if many American Christians, myself included, have managed to turn the paradigm act of humility, serving others, into an act of pride? What if we’ve corrupted the act of service in such a way that for many of us, in order to do what Jesus meant, we have to stop, at least for a while, doing what Jesus says?

Let me explain. In Matthew 20:28, we have the famous line: “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.” But is Jesus advocating for a specific act? Or for a way of handling power & authority? The context will help. Two of the disciples get their mommy (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.

Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God is a place where the great are those who give up their power, just as Paul so beautifully describes in Philippians 2. So is it possible that our acts of service can become a place not where we give up our power, but where we protect it?

Where do we see this?

We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.

We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.

In other words, so long as I make sure I am always the one helping, I can be assured that I am the one with, and you are the one without. I can be assured that our focus will be on your problems so that I can keep my veneer of comfort and security, with the added bonus of a good feeling in my heart for helping the “less fortunate.”

I contend that if we are truly going to imitate Jesus, we should learn to be with other human beings who are different than us. Not to save them, serve them, make them a project, but to see them for who they are and not be afraid to be associated with them, thrown in the same labeling, or seen on the same side of the soup line.

For in relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.

This is what the Incarnation of Jesus means to me, who became and became associated with, humanity, leaving behind his divinity (Phil 2.) for the sake of relationship. So if we want to find a way to be like the Jesus who, although had cosmic social status, gave it up to be a servant, we would do better to find our example in the Jesus who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering. Maybe we sometimes we need to be served in order to serve.

So may we stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding ourselves that “at least we’re not like them” and instead start admitting our weaknesses, our need for help, and our vulnerability to those around us.

“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41

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Nicole Kidman & Conservative Readings of the Bible

I’m currently reading a biography on Nicole Kidman by a journalist who has never actually met Nicole Kidman. The best part of the book is the beginning where he explains some of the reasons we love celebrities: “…the most important thing in that vexed transaction is the way the actress and the spectator must remain strangers. That’s how the magic works…For their cannot be this pitch of irrational desire without that rigorous apartness.”

His point is that we desire what we do not have because we can recreate it in our own image. We love the idea of God because we can make God into our own image, making God into whatever we want or need God to be. So long as God remains “out there” as “that which fulfills all my desires,” we love God. This is I think what is so compelling about the conservative Evangelical view of God, the perfect, transcendent, one. We like our Bible to be perfect, mystical, magical, and incomprehensible because then it always remains desirous, just out of reach, full of surprises that tickle our fancy.

But once the Bible becomes human, all too human, and once God is revealed as “irascible” as Brueggemann recounts it, we lose that aloofness, that mystical apartness that we were so attracted to. And this is what the conservative Evangelical’s paradigm will not allow. So while incarnation is given lip service, it is the “transcendent One” who will always trump. While the Bible says that Jesus “grew in wisdom and knowledge,” which means he didn’t know everything and when Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabacthani, My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me,” we must figure out a way to read those so Jesus doesn’t seem so . . . common, so human. We say we want a Jesus we can relate to but in those few instances where I feel I relate most to Jesus, in my ignorance and in my doubt, the conservative Evangelical paradigm becomes extremely uncomfortable.

When the Bible comes down off the silver screen and walks among us. When it says things we are embarrassed by, when it shows its age and sometimes inappropriate behavior, we get very uncomfortable with it. Thanks but no thanks. I prefer you on the screen where I can imagine you are something else, where you remain aloof and untouchable behind a veil of preconceived doctrines and guidlines, yes, but perfect and protected.

Thomson says it this way about Nicole Kidman in particular: “Anyway, the subject of this book is Nicole Kidman. And I should own up straightaway that, yes, I like Nicole Kidman very much. When I tell people that, sometimes they leer and ask, “Do you love her?” And my answer is clear: Yes, of course, I love her – so long as I do not have to meet her.”

The Christian Workarounds

In my work as a communications adviser, one of my primary tasks is to help people let go of their workarounds. Sure, it takes 10 extra steps, 3 more documents, and 1 sacrificed squirrel to get it done – but it’s what they know, it’s comfortable, and change is scary. I totally get it. I hate change too.

What I recognized early on as a pastor is that Christians have these workarounds too. At a “book study” one night at my house going through whatever popular Christian Living book we were using at the time, a new Christian asked: “Is it really this hard to be a good Christian?” She was referring to all the “simple steps” articulated in the book. Why does being a “good Christian” take reading all these books?

I had had enough. I looked at my group and said, in my overly brash/arrogant early 20s way, “No. It’s not that difficult to understand. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor. Defend the poor. Give up all you own.” But that’s terrifying. It requires actual sacrifice. So Christians in America have spent the last 50 years developing dozens of workarounds, ways to be “good Christians” without actually having to do the hard things Jesus talks about.”

Was I arrogant? yes. Was I wrong? I don’t think so.

As Kierkegaard says, “Being alone with God’s Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising. Can’t we be honest for once! It is only all too easy to understand the requirements contained in God’s Word. The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God’s requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to will to understand it and to then act accordingly. Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.” – For Self-Examination & Judge For Yourself 26–35

Some of us evangelicals have more of an academic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve defending esoteric doctrines that no one has ever heard of. Others of us evangelicals have more of a contemplative or pragmatic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve those aspects of our lives.

Are these bad practices in themselves? Probably not. As always, it’s about the heart.

Why do we defend doctrine rather than the poor? Why do we grow in learning to be kinder and more patient but not growing into solidarity with people who make us uncomfortable? Because the former increases our comfort and control while the latter decreases our comfort and control.

But to admit that we just don’t know how to love well would be devastating, our fragile egos often cannot handle it. So, we create a workaround. We create a new system where Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says and where defending doctrine is a wonderful substitute for defending the poor. All the reward without any of the sacrifice.

It’s like the Christian version of the diet pill, putting money in the manufacturers’ pockets & helping people find a solution for their dilemma of wanting to change without the pain that change causes. Sounds like a win-win. Is that bad? I am not interested in right or wrong, good or bad. I’m just saying that if we want to be like Jesus, increasing comfort and control doesn’t seem to be a good tactic. There is no Resurrection Sunday without the Death of Good Friday.

From “The” to “My”

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