Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nothing Special

Nothing Special
Col. 1:9-12; Lk. 10:25-37[1]
My Grandmother’s sister, Ruth Jackson, was the first woman to become an orthopedic surgeon. Anywhere. In fact, the association of women orthopedists in the AMA is called the “Ruth Jackson Society.” She was quite a gutsy lady—just becoming a doctor was hard enough for a woman in those days. Her passion combined with her compassion for people who suffered led her to break into one of the most elite “male’s only” clubs in that day. When she was treated for a neck injury, she was displeased that orthopedics in that day was a “hands-off” discipline. So she pioneered a “hands-on” approach to treating neck injuries. She literally wrote the book on it—a book that went through 4 editions and was the standard text around the world for many years.
Growing up with Aunt Ruth was both wonderful and difficult. She could be incredibly demanding of a boy who she wanted to follow in her footsteps. In fact, the whole family expected me—both implicitly and out loud—to do something “spectacular” just like Aunt Ruth. They didn’t insist that I go into medicine—though she applied a great deal of “arm twisting” to get me to do just that. But whatever field I went into, it was clear that I was expected to rise to a level of national if not international renown. I realize this all sounds pretty incredible, but I assure you every word of it is true.
To some extent I still struggle with that legacy. As a minister, it has been my passion to make a lasting contribution to the body of Christ. It was fairly easy to see myself doing that as a professor of the largest theological seminary in the world (at that time). These days, I struggle sometimes with that notion that I’m supposed to do something spectacular. I think this serves as a kind of follow up to the “myth” that “I can’t really make a difference.” In a sense, it’s the flip side of that idea—that you have to do something “spectacular” if you want to make a difference. I think this is especially the case in our culture where we worship “celebrities.” How many of our kids dream not of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher–but rather a famous actor or musician? For some people, that notion becomes almost an obsession—you have to do something spectacular if you even want to be valued by those you love.
I think that our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Colossians this week gives us some help at this point. He talks about a perspective on the Christian life that is pretty down to earth. It’s a matter of “bearing fruit” and doing “good deeds” and living with “perseverance” and “patience.”[2] These and other incredibly mundane activities are what it means to “walk worthily” of the one who redeemed us.[3] It sounds like the life that Paul envisions for those of us who would follow Christ is really nothing special. That might seem too cliché to merit our attention, until you think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After all, what did the Samaritan do that was so “spectacular”? All this kind soul did was to notice the one who was wounded, and then to care enough to bind up the wounds and to provide for his recuperation. It was simply a story of mercy in action, compassion that goes the second mile. But it made all the difference in the world to “the one who fell among thieves.”
It seems to me, contrary to our culture that is obsessed with all things “spectacular,”[4]that it is when we are engaged in the most mundane activities that we make the most difference in another person’s life.[5] When you get right down to it, that’s the only place we can really make much of a difference in the life of another human being. We mortals rarely achieve the level of influence that can truly make a difference for hundreds or thousands of people out there. For the most part, we have the opportunity to touch a life here, a life there. It is through the quality of our character, not anything “spectacular” that we may do, that we make a difference in another life. It is through the way in which we conduct our relationships, not through any great “achievement,” that we really have an effect on another human being.[6] From that perspective, the Christian life is “nothing special”—it’s a matter of simply living out the grace and mercy and compassion of God. But then that’s what makes it so important for us to live like that.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/11/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 322-25, where he discusses “the concreteness of holiness.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:595.
[3] For those of us who have a way of making a burden out of the simplest things in life, I would remind you that “bearing fruit” from a Christian perspective is not a matter of our own efforts, but rather is a natural result of the life of faith in the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:594.
[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 100, where he compares this to the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness!
[5] Nouwen, Here and Now, 103: “The compassionate life is mostly hidden in the ordinariness of everyday living.”
[6] Cf. Nouwen, Here and Now, 98-99: “It is not ‘excelling’ but ‘serving’ that makes us most human. It is not proving ourselves to be better than others but confessing to be just like others that is the way to healing and reconciliation.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, who conceives of Jesus’ relationship with us and our relationship with each other in terms of “friendship,” which he defines as (115-16) “an unpretentious relationship” and an “existence with others” that “unites affection with respect,” “combines affection with loyalty,” and “springs from freedom, exists in mutual freedom and preserves that freedom.” See also ibid., 316-17.

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