downsized faith {the myth of greatness}

Featured, Social Justice — By on March 31, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Most people will live unremarkable lives that are soon forgotten after they’ve passed on.  The overwhelming majority of us won’t change history or leave a lasting legacy worthy of a museum or a biography. We’re born, we live, and then we die.  All pretty much behind the scenes.

In a landscape filled with driven ambition to be better and best, has the modern American church  scene become a bastion of spiritual excellence?  When is the last time you heard a sermon on failure or weakness?  Who of our spiritual leaders publicly air their brokenness or boast of their humanity?

Average living has become despised as we wait for God’s epic plan for our lives to show up.  If we keep waiting, we tell ourselves, it will eventually unfold.  The miles of sticks and crates of carrots that have been dangled in front of us for too many years has conditioned many of us into a lull that aches for our greatness to breakout. We were meant to be more… to do more, we tell ourselves as we listen to yet another life-changing sermon on a Sunday morning.

What if what we are waiting for, that great version of who we think we’re supposed to be – a world changer - is an illusion?

Corporate-sized life is fading. From the economy to business and to faith communities, small is becoming the new preferred size.  Microtrends are becoming micro lifestyles as people, including Christians, are discovering that bigger is not necessarily better. Downsizing is suddenly becoming fashionable.  But can we make it even more personal and shrink down those grandiose visions inside of us that insist we were meant for greatness?

In the Western mindset, big accomplishments that create economic or social power equals greatness. For sure, there are many who prosper at what they do. Thank God for the inventors and creatives who go out on a limb to try something innovative.

But in the kingdom of God, greatness is not measured this way. God’s kingdom is an upside down kingdom where the smallest becomes the biggest and the greatest citizens are its invisible sons and daughters.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells people not to aim for success. “The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more are going to miss it,” he says. Instead, says Frankl, let success become an unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than one’s self.

Downsizing personal goals flies in the face of the instruction from gurus and preachers of motivation. They tell us to let inspiration propel us to heights of personal accomplishment that will produce some kind of wow.  Is that what Jesus set out to preach?  Was he a motivational speaker calling for his followers to live their best life now?

Maybe we need to demotivate, scale down our lofty goals for greatness as Christ followers. Can we let God be great in the common exchanges of day to day life? Can we embrace an identity of obscurity as power brokers swirl around us with strategy meetings for brand marketing? (branding is a popular  term used by many churched people who have a business mindset towards their ministry)

The strategy of Jesus with the original twelve was this:

You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.  Mark 10:42-44, The Message

Too often in the mega movement of Christendom we have seen superstardom overtake and corrupt pure Christian spirituality.  Is this perhaps why Jesus worked so hard to intentionally reject superstardom?  If Jesus worked hard to downsize shouldn’t his followers?

A big part of my story in learning to downsize my life and faith comes from The Bridge, my faith community. This rowdy little church, which seems more like a tavern than a house of the holy, does big things through small efforts. Like give away groceries each week to whoever needs them. We do this without any kind of expectation that people will come to our faith community.  We do it for the sake of serving those who need a bag of groceries.

Here in Portland where I live, in the north part of the city where funky little neighborhoods are bursting with creative energy, there is a monthly street fair known as Last Thursday.

I was hanging out one summer night enjoying the art and music and exotic smells of the various food vendors on Alberta Street where Last Thursday is hosted. It felt like a big party. I bumped into a friend who introduced me to a guy who had  just returned from a time of missionary service overseas.  Since he’d arrived home, he’d been regretting coming back.  He wasn’t sure if he was meant to return to a life overseas or go to school or get a job…like many people, he was living in that uncomfortable place of transition.

We talked at length about his dissatisfaction. “What are you doing now?” I asked as a typical Portland hipster dude walked by with blue hair and a full-sleeve tattoo of what looked like a cross between the Last Supper and a scene from Night of the Living Dead.

He frowned and shoved his hands deeper into his jeans pockets. “I have a part-time job at a coffee joint, but …”  His words trailed off as he stared at the sidewalk. “I don’t know.  I think I’m just doing nothing.  When I was living in Uganda everyday was like an adventure, but here, I’m just some guy making coffee drinks in Portland.  I’m not doing anything for God.”

We talked some more. I have a knack for getting total strangers to let their guard down and open up to me.  My therapist says it’s really an issue with appropriate social boundaries.  Go figure.

“What if it’s enough to work at a job and just love the people around you?” I asked. “What if it’s cool with God that you live a simple life? That you’ve downsized?”

I felt a weirdness of discomfort tighten up in my belly. Am I talking him into accepting a mediocre life?  I need to shut up and let this guy find his purpose, I thought as he began to lose interest in our conversation and was ready to move on. I didn’t blame him. There was a fire dance performance about to start on the next block and God knows that my seasoned-woman-of-faith wisdom couldn’t  compete with that.

I slunked home wondering if I had given a zealous Christ follower permission to be ordinary?  Does my average life matter?  With no wow factor or dazzling talent that will bring me youtube stardom, can I really trust that my ordinary existence is meaningful?  Or am fooling myself and finding a way to spiritualize mediocrity?

That I am even asking these kinds of questions betrays how conditioned I’ve become to expect great things to flow from my life because of my relationship with God. This is a distortion, really, of the prosperity gospel and the idea that a life of Christian spirituality will be marked by success and ministry accomplishment.

I am convinced that it is the gestures of the everyday life where sacred shots of God’s presence lie in waiting.  Grand plans to be a history maker for Jesus sound great in a sermon or at a rally, but in the life swirl of the average Jane and her brother Joe, God is most discovered within the story frame of Life Right Here and Right Now.

I am the revolution and it is today.  Not out there somewhere in the bullshit myth of tomorrow.

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    13 Comments

  • sara says:

    Pam,

    Great insight. You really messed with my head with this one. That’s a good thing, in my book!

  • Kathleen says:

    Great post!! I’ve been struggling with this stuff, too, and I haven’t reached any final conclusions, either.

    I blog primarily about marriage, and recently I’ve been encouraging my readers to settle for an OK marriage because they’re going to make themselves crazy striving for impossible excellence. In fact, I tend to encourage folks to strive for satisfactory in all areas of life, because I know how striving for the extraordinary can lead to frustration and disappointment. Sometimes, though, like you, I worry that I’m given them permission to be mediocre when they could be “sensational” (or whatever people strive to be). Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Jim Barringer says:

    The previous comment reminds me of something Jesus said – “If you’re given much, much will be required of you.” God doesn’t grade everyone on the same scale. Some people – maybe most, judging by the numbers – are given ingredients for averageness. Author Larry Osborne pointed out that everyone hangs on Paul’s letters, ignoring the fact that he was writing them to thousands upon thousands of average people, none of whom ever did anything approaching Paul’s work, but all of whom were sources of delight to him simply because they had saving faith. Paul is not the norm for Christianity. The “cobbler in Corinth” is.

    Rather than having us all strive for greatness or all strive for mediocrity, the only thing to do is strive to find God’s identity for each of us – great or not – and do what we can with what he’s given us.

  • gemma says:

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    I can’t seem to reconcile in my head the desire in my heart for greatness…in my particular passion to see huge leaps in the fight against poverty and corruption to see many lives changes…but at the same time feeling so worn out by the fight and wondering if it isn’t just better to live simply and just love the people in my path today.

    i am confused.

    but thanks

  • Grace says:

    Encouraging.

    I’ve been reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. He was a man who embraced the simple life, being a cook at a monastery. He experience rapturous worshipful moments in the most mundane activities only because he did them for the love of God. Not to be great, or to be intentionally small, but just to love God. I think many times we go to too many extremes (great and small) to try to fit some human-centered standard. If we keep our focus on the God who saved us, we might come to find the balance.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Just preached on Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 and was astounded by what Jesus did – utterly against the grain. The presumptions regarding ‘sphere of influence’ and ‘impact’ and ‘market share’ must all be held up against the light of Jesus call to self-emptying.

    We can create lives of beauty in endless ways, but our culture presses us to the loud, exotic, and overtly influential – rather than the quiet and ordinary. We do this to our shame, and our loss.

  • Eric Allen says:

    good words. here’s a nod to the bullshit myth of tomorrow. And I’m pretty sure I was on Alberta street that day.

  • Tyler McCabe says:

    On one hand, if you’ve been conditioned to believe that God has this great, exciting life for you, then it’s a terrifying thing to face the idea that perhaps He just wants to walk with you in an ordinary one. But maybe this simply means we’ve got the wrong definitions for ordinary and extraordinary. God might be simply asking us, “Without the promise of a dazzling adventure, is my love enough?” And, simultaneously, it might be that his love is really a different kind of dazzling adventure, one where our “ordinary” becomes extraordinary in way that goes unpublished, undocumented at a national or global level, but not unnoticed on a real, human level.

  • Jennifer says:

    Love it. Something for me to contemplate today, thank you! :)

  • Hey all, my apologies for not being aware that this article had been published or I most certainly would have been paying attention to this discussion!

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. This writing is a result of much reflection on this concept. I could write an entire book on this topic!

    Small is the new big, and that is nothing to bs about. Most Christ followers the world over are living their faith out in simplicity and laying down their reputations and ambitions for the sake of others. It’s not sexy, but it’s the way of Jesus. It’s a the way I’m really trying to embrace…

  • Consue says:

    My thankfuls:To be free of boneagds today.To wear His armour of protection and His belt of truth each day.For do-overs when I mess up!That God speaks to me thru others all the time.The peace and serenity that I recieve in my heart when I ask Him to walk with me thru out my day.

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