There’s a Bible Study at my new place of employment. At the Bible Study I heard a testimonial by Wayne Huizenga Jr. that is part of a series called “I Am Second” (Jesus being first, if you hadn’t figured that out). The testimonial was very good and I have no doubt that Huizenga is completely sincere, but the testimonial dredged up some very old baggage that resulted in me being “irritated” by the process rather than being “blessed” by the testimony.
The baggage that irritates me is our tendency toward hero worship. The “I Am Second” project tells the story of people who put Christ first in their life. Among those people are Jeff Fisher, coach of the St. Louis Rams, Sean Lowe, the Bachelor #17, Ethan Hallmark, a 13 year old cancer survivor and internet celebrity, hiphop artist Lecrae, soccer legend Kaká, and Stephen Baldwin, movie star in hits such as the remade Oceans franchise, The Usual Suspects, etc.
My dismay is not with any one of these people. In fact I have great admiration for those I am acquainted with. Kaká, for instance, plays soccer with such joy and humility – never losing his cool over a missed call or an undeserved card – that I find myself watching Orlando City FC matches just to watch him and the aura of Christ-like joy that he exudes. (And this was before I even knew he was a Christian!) My dismay rather has to do with the metanarrative of the “I Am Second” project.
When I scroll through the list of participants I realize that I want to watch them, not because they are “Second to Christ,” but because they are A-listers, Alpha Dogs, or Firsts in their field. The narrative may be “I am second.” The meta-narrative is “We care because they are actually first.” If the site was filled with stories of Joe who works at hardware store, Janet, who was in an accident and will spend the rest of her life in a half-way house for the disabled, and Jennifer, who will never make much of her life (by our societal standards) because she’s bipolar and shuffles through life with starts and stops, I wouldn’t bother listening to their stories because they’re nobodies (again, by our societal standards).
Later in the morning it occurred to me that I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon. The same thing that irritates me about contemporary Christian hero admiration is the same thing that irritates me about how we celebrate the saints in the Orthodox and Catholic communions. It is the general consensus among people who think about these things that there are utterly amazing saints who lived and worked in the world that no one has ever heard of. The saints we do celebrate were usually rich, famous, or otherwise well known for their deeds. The rest of saints (do I dare say the real saints?) are lost to us in the forgetfulness of disinterest. In fact there is a saint whose story makes this exact point.
A young man who nobody particularly liked (because he was socially awkward and ugly) died in one of the world wars. He was unceremoniously buried by the enemy. Several years later his family had the opportunity to move the body to the family plot in the church cemetery. When they dug up his remains his body had not corrupted (the sine qua non of recognizing sainthood in the Orthodox Church) and the fragrance of roses came from the grave. God was telling them that he was a true saint. As people began to reflect on his life, all the signs of a life transformed by Christ were there, but he was socially awkward and ugly, so nobody took notice, until the evidence was forced upon them at his reburial.
That is typical of true sanctification in Christ. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
But in spite of that fundamental principal, we continue to be attracted to the wise, the famous, the rich. It’s in our sin-deformed DNA.
Furthermore, this is the way the Church has always been. I need to quit being so irritated by it and instead embrace the amazing transformation in the lives of the saints we do celebrate and people, such as the “I Am Second,” All Stars who are living examples of what Christ can do. And then I need to thank God that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The most amazing and transformative work that God has done remains completely invisible to us. Our eyes are attracted to earthly greatness, so God works in the lives of the great, when their hearts are open to him, so that we can be reminded of all the lives that God transformed that we never noticed because our focus is in the wrong place. That is yet another example of the mercy of God bending to our weaknesses. Thanks be to God.