Greatness: Just the Basics

The Greatness Question:

Was Jesus really the wisest teacher of all?

Did the way He live out His short life revolutionise our world?

The writers of the four books we call the gospels shared stories that made themselves look less than stellar. They had no shame in doing so. They were goobers, spiritually inept. One thing can be said though, when in the presence of greatness, they knew it, and thus it mattered not how clumsily insignificant they came off looking in the annals of history. What mattered most was the story. They all knew to the very last of them that the one who was in their midst was no ordinary rabbi. Here’s a Christ (not Jesus last name, by the way!) that breaks all the rules, gets all the religious establishment gunning for him and leaves everyone in awe. One of the more awkward disciples, Peter, would soon say what Jewish culture considered blasphemy and ascribe to Jesus the status of “Godhood!” In Peter’s eyes, Jesus was that good!

My friend David Hazard tells the story of one of his church members at the time who was on the same plane as the renowned Pittsburgh Penguins. She knew absolutely nothing about hockey. She unwittingly bumped in Mario Lemieux, (known as Super Mario and one of history’s most talented forwards) and after some small conversation about hockey, she asked, “So Mario, are you any good?” Ha! Are you any good? I think Mario answered something like, “Yeah, I’m not bad!”

We all love talking about the greatest this or that. A conversation starter often is like this, “What’s the greatest movie, book, leader of all time?” We’d answer, “Yeah, that wasn’t bad.” It was also the conversation starting question that the disciples asked Jesus on more than one occasion, “Jesus, who is the greatest in our gang?” I think you know that this line of questioning is a troubling one. The need to be great and remembered has ruined many a man! 

The way Jesus answers their question surprises. Jesus begins by saying, “Unless you change… (change what?) your way of thinking about greatness…” (Mathew 18:3) Oh, by the way, did you know that the word, “repent,” actually means to change your way of thinking. Now that might surprise a lot of people who think repenting is crying over bad choices and deeds. Not really! It begins with a turn around in the way we think, perceive and understand.

Wrong thinking is what we call stinking thinking and that smell pervades how we, like every society, elevate and grovel before leaders.  Even in the context of church life have you noticed how hierarchies, status building, elitism and hero worship still remain today? Be clear about it, it was never meant to be that way. Jesus flips the script on His followers and says, “Keep thinking that way and you are not going to amount to much in the Kingdom!” And because Jesus wants us to repent (change our thinking on this issue) He does the unthinkable, grabs a little child and says, “Unless you become like this kid, you will never be great in God’s eyes.”

Think about this physical metaphor in the eyes of Jesus’ followers. In light of what we know of the culture in Jesus’ day, it was a culture that focused around adults. There was little catering to children in that day. The disciples didn’t even like having these twerps take up any of Jesus’ time. And Jesus, with the child in his arms, implicitly says, “This is the best model of leadership I know, the one standing before you right now, this kid!” Imagine that! There before them was a kid who enjoyed no status, no rights, no entitlement and had little inclination to push to get to the top.” Children own their littleness. That is the purest way to lead Jesus says.

I am sure there is nothing wrong with wanting your life to count, even wanting greatness in some form! However, can I say is like this, greatness should be defined as humility joined with awesome potential and confident love.

Maybe the most revolutionary thing Jesus did in the eyes of His inner circle was on the night he was betrayed, in that upper chamber filled with food, sweat and dirty feet.The narrative says Jesus knew where He had come from and was going and knew that the Father had given Him true leadership over all, (John 13:3). The fooImaged was ready for enjoyment. Custom said that feet needed to be washed before food was consumed. But there was no one to wash their dirty feet. Immediately, without hesitating, Jesus hangs up his robes, takes the towel and begins washing their feet. Of course it is the proudest of the bunch, Peter, that remonstrates and refuses the water and towel on his dirty feet, “You really want to go down that far, Jesus?”

And Jesus says, “This is how we do it in my Kingdom.”

Peter, who we keep using as a less-than-stellar example, learned humility the hard way, lousy embarrassing failure!  But eventually Peter, after repeated red-faced anguished moments, learned it and afterwards he wrote a letter to all his friends about it, using prose like this,Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”

Most run from the way and posture of humility, it’s not human nature to want live under the greatness of another. Yet it must begin with us.  It begins with the bedrock realisation that we are alive in our world and in the presence of the Greatest One that has ever been. No more posturing or needing to impress the masses or even a handful because, heck, we know we lost the ‘greatness competition’ already! Nothing we could do could really impress the One who knows all and is the greatest. We must find a way to hang up our robes of grandeur and humble ourselves by trusting that we are already loved, worthy and in are included in His-story.

I finish with the repeated reminder that greatness is not about big bank accounts, world travels or how successful we appear before our peers and our world. I actually laughed when I wrote this last sentence as I thought of Jesus’ bank account on earth, He never even barely stepped out of that tiny swath of land called Israel and in the end it look like he lived a life that was a complete failure. Ironic. Yet this wounded one carries today an authority unmatched. This man that emptied himself of all status, trusted His Father, quite like a child, to make the story of his life bring the change needed to millions upon millions of people. I am one of those people. He was and still is that good! Revolutionary.

When Losing is Gaining (Those Necessary Endings)

Have you ever lost something or someone precious that you felt could never be replaced and it was like a part of you just disappeared?

Have you ever had plans or dreams but through unforeseen setbacks, those plans and dreams were turned completely upside down and you felt like a part of your reason for living was taken away?

Have you ever been forced to make some hard decisions because of workplace issues or health issues or relational issues or financial issues and it put your life into a season of transition and into a time of losing your emotional and spiritual bearings?

When I reflect about ‘endings’ I realize they are a normal part of every life on earth.  We don’t always like them though. In the book of Ecclesiastes it tells us there is a time for everything under the sun. It says there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… it continues on for a whole paragraph. Look it up in chapter 3. He continues eloquently in opening our mind to see that there is a time to search and a time to give up searching, a time to keep and a time to throw away and so on. The wisdom of the writer of Ecclesiastes says “On this earth there are beginnings and there are endings.” Sometimes the endings are forced upon us by circumstances outside of our control. At other times we need to be the ones to intentionally end something.

Ending things conjures up the image of uprooting in order to make way for a new crop of uprootbeauty. I know the back-breaking investment of time and energy in preparing the soil for new life. It is just necessary to pull out a lot of the old and unlovely to make room for the new. The idea of uprooting is not contained simply to a garden. It’s about eyes to see new beauty in our own future. In order for that to happen there is a time “to uproot” things, positions, locations and even relationships that have been nurtured for a long time. Does that sound hard? I think it does. I have literally “uprooted” my family  almost a dozen times living as a missionary, both in Canada and Thailand. I know what it is to drive off after a farewell party given by people whom you have invested in for years. Driving off to waving people and then cry so hard that you can hardly see the road ahead is a fairly familiar scenario in my life. However,  the teared-blurred vision will eventually clear up to the opening curtains of new fresh scene for our lives to be played out to.

So there are endings that we must play a part in. There are life situations when ‘goodbye’ is the best thing you can do. There are phases in our lives that need to be shaken off to enter a new phase. There are habits and behavioral patterns that need to be cut off. Yet when we are put face to face with a possible ending, what makes it so difficult for us is the question of perspective. We think (we worry, we predict) that the outcome will be negative or too difficult, so we avoid, postpone, runaway from endings. It could be that most of our endings have proved so painful that we willingly stay in a less than preferred situation for fear of another painful ending.

I think life experience tells us that we can become best friends to things that are not in our best interest. There are things that should have ended a long time ago in our lives but because of uncertainty, or an unhealthy dependency or fear of losing our position or security in the future, we have remained in the same state of mind for far too long. Yet, and I repeat, endings are sometimes what the good Lord has prescribed and brings to us health and wholeness. It’s a positive thing.

ImageWhen you have a tooth that is throbbing in your nerve center so hard that you can’t even think a coherent thought, it’s a good thing to get allow a wise dentist to prick and prod and finally pull that wisdom tooth. Yes it is painful. But it is what we call ‘pain with a purpose.’  As Dr. Henry Cloud states in his book, Necessary Endings, pain with a purpose is a whole lot better than pain for no good reason!

Losing can be gain.

John 12:24

Good News Translation

24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains.

So understand well that the words,  “The End” is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to us, but often it is exactly what you need to have happen in order to experience the words: “A new beginning!” “A new freedom” “A new level of understanding” “A new sense of purpose and destiny.”

The cry of Jesus on the cross: “It is finished!” wasn’t a cry of despair that meant, “It’s all over with.”

The disciples thought it was over and done with, it was time to go back to the old job of catching fish.

Pilate and the Roman soldiers thought it was over and done with, no more craziness from the Jews for awhile.

Everybody else in the story thought it was over and done with, Jesus was finished.

But God and Jesus had the inside scoop, they knew something that none of them could fathom. This was no whimper on the cross, it was a victory shout! One more stage towards a new heaven and a new earth was accomplished. Soon there would be a new beginning, a new season, a new day, a new dawn. Yes, a new humanity was about to be birthed!!!!

I can remember a period of 12 months of my life that I had to make some difficult life choices. I laid down leadership of a community that I loved dearly, Newsong. Soon after I agonized over the decision to resign my role, after 12 years, as the Field Director with my Mission agency. After that last decision I was cleaning out the Field Rep office I loved and worked in and was feeling really lost. I had been identified by these roles for so long that it defined me and gave me influence, respect and to a degree, control. While filling up yet another cardboard box of books I felt like a powerless nobody. It was like falling off the ladder and restarting the climb from the bottom rung. Yes, I knew well that Patricia and I were going to start something new (Verge@50) out of our house, but even that seemed to be so insignificant in comparison to what I was doing all these years.

Then the Lord began to teach me all over about following. While packing a few remaining decorative items that graced my office, my friend Dave Gibbon’s came on-line and asked if I wanted to chat. At first I ignored him because I was in no mood to be cheered up. I was feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, let alone allow Dave to see me in this sad-sack state. Then Dave sent me this link of Ed Dobson’s story of losing his ability to lead a vibrant congregation because of ALS, a terminal illness. I stopped what I was doing and watched. I watched and sobbed should be a better description. The truth of Ed’s life mirrored exactly what I was feeling. It was a reminder that losing a position or a platform is not the end of the world. Ed’s life began to take on new meaning and new opportunities opened to him to influence.

Now I am re-learning that my main job as a leader is following His, (Jesus) lead. Perhaps that is the greatest task of all of us, to learn how to follow Jesus personally and daily. Maybe the word ‘leader’ in our communities of faith  should be used sparingly and the words ‘follower’ should be used consistently? It more completely describes our true identity.

For me this losing is slowly being understood as becoming gain. Yes, I have lost my title as ‘field leader’ but I have gained new freedom too and I have relearned the posture of a disciple. I haven’t thrown out my leadership books yet, but some are making their way to other people’s libraries and some may stay in their cardboard boxes for awhile yet!