Oscar Wilde once suggested that people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Do you know why? Because everybody tells us the price and, in doing so, thinks they’ve defined value. The voices are everywhere and those voices are passionate. They come from the politicians, the preachers, the authors, the con artists and the “sellers of the trinkets,” and they seem so sure. Then they remind us that we “only go around once,” so we have to get it right the first time.
I’m old—as old as dirt—and over the years, I’ve listened to so many of those voices. It took me a long time to have an “attack of sanity” and to realize that those voices didn’t know anymore than I knew. And I found out that most of them were wrong. Late at night, an old man knows that sometimes he, as Mark Twain put it, “paid too much for his whistle.”
I’m not depressed about the voices I listened to though. In fact, just the opposite.
I started thinking about this because a friend of a friend asked me to write the foreword to a book by Kyle Drake, Unsucceeding: Waking up From My American Dream. I liked it. It’s about a man who had everything and decided he was listening to the wrong voices. So, he decided to only listen to the voice of Jesus, to trust him, and to see what happened. The man resigned from his job, and then allowed Jesus to deal the cards and determine the rules of the game. His story wasn’t manipulative, self-righteous or guilt-producing. In fact, he was quite honest in both the successful and less than successful places.
At any rate, as I read the book, I thought about the roads I had walked just because everybody told me that if I wanted to be successful, those were the roads I should walk. How could so many people be that wrong?
Are you shocked? You didn’t think preachers were concerned with things like career, fame and fortune? Let me disabuse you of your naiveté. There aren’t, after all, separate airport bathrooms for men, women and preachers. The difference between our sin and your (the un-ordained) sin is that we attach Jesus’ name to our sins in order to make them sound religious.
I have a preacher friend who resigned from his church after serving there for only two years. He had been offered a very large church and more money…to say nothing of the prestige. Most preachers would have said something about how they had agonized over the decision and God had made it clear; so, as painful as it was to leave, they must “follow Jesus.”
Not my friend. He said to the congregation, “I love you guys but I’ve been offered Church. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and all my life I’ve wanted to be the pastor of Church. I’m not going to get another chance so I’m out of here. Do pray for me and I’ll pray for you.”
I loved what he said and so did Jesus. Not only that, Diogenes—the cynical Greek philosopher who, in the fourth century, strolled around with a lamp in his hand looking for an honest man-blew out his lamp and went home.
The question isn’t the authenticity of what my friend said to his congregation, but whether or not he made a wise decision. At the time, I thought he was both authentic and wise. Now that I think back on it, I still think he was authentic but he may not have been very wise. He served that big church for a lot of years and, I suppose, enjoyed some of it. I suspect, though, he sometimes thought about the church he left and wondered if maybe his decision had been wrong.
Jesus talked once about how we worry about the wrong things, e.g. how long we’ll live or how we’ll be fed and clothed, and then he said something astonishing: “For the Gentiles (read “unbelievers”) seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33). On another occasion, Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
I’ve listened to a thousand motivational speakers all telling me how to be successful. I’ve listened to some of those voices and tried to walk down those roads. We preachers and religious leaders do the same thing as you do but we put God into the mix. Do you grow tired of being challenged to “make your life count”? Do you grow tired of those who admonish you to “change the world” or “make an impact for God”? Do you wince at the calls for excellence? Do you feel guilty after some very godly people say they want to “burn out”—not “rust out”—for God? I do. In fact, it drives me nuts!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for excellence, success, and making an impact for God (not to mention motherhood, apple pie and the flag). The problem isn’t that those things are bad. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily the places where God is calling us.
I would like to preach a sermon one day and call it, “The Challenge to be Mediocre for Jesus.” I would talk about serving Christ by being a good dad or mom, giving one’s job an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and trusting God with one’s family, job and church. I would talk about being available to God even if what he wants isn’t a big deal.
What if seeking the kingdom God is about spending time with friends and family—those who will cry at your funeral out of grief and loss, not because you are so important? What if seeking the kingdom of God is about taking your wife to dinner or telling your pastor that the sermon made a difference in your life? What if seeking the kingdom of God is about playing ball with your son or dancing with your daughter instead of going on the mission field? What if God doesn’t require greatness of you…but just faithfulness in the “normal” of life?
One time my late friend, Rusty Anderson (I still miss him), told me he had talked to God that morning.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes, really,” Rusty said. “I told him that I was available for whatever he wanted me to do and there weren’t any exceptions or reservations.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that wasn’t the issue. I wanted to do whatever he wanted. But he persisted in asking me what I wanted to do, so I finally told him, ‘Alright, already! I would like to build a barn out in the back part of my property.’”
“Well, what did he say?” I asked.
“He said,” Rusty said, laughing, “that I should do it with joy!”
As I read Kyle’s book, I thought about the times, by God’s grace, I did what everybody told me I shouldn’t do. I remembered the times I was called a fool for walking the road Jesus told me to walk. It made me feel kind of good about myself. But then, as I read the book, I winced when I thought about the mistaken voices I listened to, the wrong roads I walked and the many times I played poker with confederate money…even when Jesus told me that the currency was worthless.
But as I wrote above, it’s okay. Jesus likes me. In the first instance, I thanked him. In the second, I ran to him and he loved me anyway.
In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen wrote: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self…The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.”
The “irrelevant” part is hard, but it is also the path toward incredible freedom and joy. It is about Jesus and once we see that, we discover it’s about us too. It’s about a love so pervasive that everything else pales in its light.
He told me to remind you!
[Editor’s Note: Steve has a new book just published entitled “Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You.”]