You Are Uniquely Important
One of my favorite illustrations from popular culture is the story of the blind men and the elephant: several blind men had to describe the creature they each encountered. One man grasped the elephant's trunk and said that the creature was like a great thick snake, writhing back and forth. One man pressed against the elephant's side and said that the creature was like a great wall covered with leather -- soft, but impossible to move. One man felt the elephant's ear and said the creature was more like a fan. Another man felt the elephant's leg and said the creature was actually more like a pillar. And one man felt the elephant's tusk and said that the creature was like a hard curved pipe. And, of course, they were all right, but they were all wrong. Each one had a portion of truth, but the whole truth required all of their perspectives.
That fits well with many explanations of the "image of God" in Christian theology, and also fits well into all the Pauline theology concerning the church as the body of Christ, with each part important to the whole. Each one of us reveal God in a way that no other person reveals God, and each one of us contribute to the mission of the church -- the Body of Christ -- in a way that no other person can contribute to the Body. Paul instructs us to revere each part of the Body, and to give honor to the lessor parts.
This sets the context for Paul's instructions to the Romans about how we respond to each other in love and humility out of our response of gratitude for the gift of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Proper humility does not think more of oneself than one ought, because in a proper view of myself in the context of all of us, I see myself as filling the role I am called to fill and each one of you as filling the role you are each called to fill. Pride elevates my role and minimizes the role of each of you. False humility minimizes my role and abdicates my responsibility as I expect you to not only fulfill your callings but to take on the weight of mine as well. Proper humility sees my own responsibility clearly, and sees your responsibilities clearly, and calls each one of us to obedience in fulfilling God's call on all of us. (Proper humility also shows an understanding of the dynamics of sin and righteousness, and that I am just as vulnerable to private and public sin as is my brother, given the right circumstances.)
I was sitting at the back of the church with 2 friends on the evening of Ash Wednesday, and late in the service an older man came in, and our eyes met as he passed. He reacted to me in anger, saying loudly and with contempt "You're not important!"
I do not know this man, or the impetus for his words to me. He may have some senility going on, or may have some observation of me personally that he was reacting against. I do not know. But as I considered his words, I thought "No, I'm not more important than you, sir . . . but you are important, and in the same way, so am I! God thought each one of us was so important that He would have died to redeem any one of us . . . that He did die to redeem each one of us!"
I think that the changes in gender roles are hard especially for older men these days, and even for some of the younger ones of us. Women used to be expected to be cheerleaders for the football players, and now most of us are unwilling to be limited to the sidelines when God has gifted us with the skills to contribute to the game . . . and we have a new understanding of gender and of scripture and the culture in which it was written that leads many of us to conclude that God's call to each one of us requires us to contribute very actively to the competitive game of life. But to those entrenched in a view of gender that came out of the 50s. it is easy to react to what they perceive to be a Christian movement that follows the secular feminism of the 60s and 70s. In fact, Biblical feminism is rooted in all of Hebrew and Christian history, and predates secular feminism by thousands of years.
We are so indoctrinated by our cultural backgrounds that we lose the ability to rightly perceive the world around us. I know many wonderful men who have listened to the same speakers as I have -- men and women speakers and teachers -- and turned around and made statements about the quality of those teachers that elevated the men and denigrated the women. They hear the men as better speakers than they hear the women as, and assume that their perception matches the perceptions of others and supports a church structure centered around traditional gender roles . . . even as they also support "equality" and the ordination of women. Their perception does not match mine, and I grieve for the years of practice at preaching given to mediocre speakers while other truly talented speakers were relegated to non-speaking ministries in the belief that the church was most edified by the choices that were made regarding this. I wonder what could have happened to the church and the ministry of each of these people if the perceptions of the decision-makers were less distorted and better able to judge accurately the abilities of all the players on the team. (This is meant to be an indightment of the larger church, not specifically of St. Andrews. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to listen to John Huffman Jr. and to Jim Birchfield at St. Andrew's, and that I do not consider them to be mediocre in any way! Nevertheless, I see Lydia Sarandan and Leah Stout both as gifted teachers and preachers, and wish each had had opportunity to hone their own skills in front of such large groups week after week. We take for granted the amazing quality of preaching we get at St. Andrews!)
One of the biggest ways we each go after our own agenda is to boost the power and status of those that we believe will work toward the "right" agenda (my agenda!) and to try to take power away from those that would foster agendas that are "wrong" (your agenda when it doesn't match mine!). We apply all the tools and labels of modern psychology to honor those on "my side" and to denigrate those who are after agendas that don't match our own. We use all the social norming techniques to do the same, and do our best to use scripture and theology and church polity in the same way. We see ourselves as "on God's side" and believe we accomplish His agenda by using every available means to do just that.
The only problem to all this is that Scripture is really just too clear about the value of each person to the whole. We are not called to "be right" or to "build God's Kingdom." We are called to make disciples . . . and disciples are people! The teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the writers of the epistles to the early churches are just too clear about this to be able to let us invest into any idealogy at the expense of investing into the person who shows up in your office today.
I am called to experience God's love in Christ, called to abide in that love, called to offer that love to my brothers and sisters in Christ, called to offer that love to the stranger I encounter each day as to my neighbor, and called to offer that love to my enemies . . . and out of knowing that love and living that love, to teach the world the source of that love and how to experience that love and live in it. That is discipleship, and that is the great commission.
A Christianity that is centered around programs and doctrine and ideology but doesn't have time to give a 5-minute ride to church to someone who isn't part of my social group or to have my day interrupted by the needs of someone who is just causing their own problems . . .
isn't Christianity, at least not the way Jesus or Paul or John or Peter explained it.
While I was completely enmeshed in a lifestyle that not only caused my own problems but caused a lot of problems for other people, God loved me and gave His son to save me. How much more will He move me forward toward fully experiencing that salvation now that I claim to be His and say I want His help?
So how can I do anything other than offer the same love to all those other "losers" who keep asking for help even though I don't believe they will ever change the cycles that make them need my help?
It is exactly that kind of sacrificial love that Paul exhorts us each toward when he commands us to not think we're better than we really are.