Greatest of All Time

Somewhere between 4th grade and 7th grade, it was a common pastime for girls in my school to rank their friends. “Tiffany is my first best friend. Holly is my second best friend. You are my third best friend.” Unless you were number one, it was demoralizing and humiliating, but you also knew your place in the pecking order was always tenuous. Any move by you or those in your circle could shift you up or down. You could get demoted by another girl extending an invitation to her birthday party at the skate center or a sleep-over at a house with an above-ground swimming pool or something as seemingly small as the gift of a Cindy Lauper cassette tape or a Duran Duran slap bracelet. (It was the 80’s, so these were a tween girl’s currency.)

 

As cut-throat and cruel as this may sound, it’s not a new idea. For all time, we humans have wanted to know where we fit as we’ve worried about the prominent placement of our seat at the table. Whether we like to admit it or not, we desire confirmation of our significance, and this often comes at the detriment of those around us.

 

Jesus’ twelve best friends were no different. As He was traveling around the area, preaching and healing, his disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest. When we read Mark’s account of the story, Jesus asks them what they were quarrelling about (even though he knows the thoughts in their heads let alone the words they’re saying to each other as they walk down the road), but “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” They knew what they were talking about was childish, and they were embarrassed to tell Him.

 

Of course, Jesus used that moment to teach them (and through His Word, us) a valuable lesson. He told them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Then Jesus saw a little child standing nearby which he lifted in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

 

You would think that the Disciples had been adequately upbraided by Jesus once he held an actual child to illustrate to them how they were acting like babies, but they didn’t fully absorb the lesson. Later, we see them reclining at the last supper they would eat with Jesus. He’s just dropped a bombshell, saying that one of them would betray him and His death was just around the corner, and they’re arguing about their status again.

 

Jesus shuts down the bickering by telling them that the order is different in His kingdom than in the kingdoms you find in the world. He tells them that it’s not about being the boss. Instead, it’s about being the servant.

 

I heard a preacher tell his congregation about an assignment for a discipleship course. He said that for a week, the person taking the course couldn’t brag about himself or defend himself when being criticized. He also couldn’t gossip or speak negatively about anyone else. He explained that the assignment was nearly impossible. He became aware of all the times he was concerned with his position, his seat at the table. He had to fight the urge to inflate his own ego or puncture the self-worth of others.

 

Jesus shows us that choosing to live the life of a servant isn’t an act of weakness, but one of extreme strength. To continually die to ourselves goes against the selfish nature we were born with and requires willpower and self-control. Most likely you won’t read words like humble or submissive or foot-washer in a political campaign ad or in the job description for a CEO or in a post-game interview with a professional athlete, but Jesus provides the best example of how to be the greatest.

Unplugged

Our home has had more work done on it than an aging movie star. Roof, siding, bathroom renovations, kitchen renovation, basement renovation, carpet, carpet again (after the flood of 2010), the addition of a sunroom, and gallons and gallons of paint. It’s gone through a lot of changes, so it isn’t unusual for us find something down in the basement or up in the attic or even out in the yard that just doesn’t make sense.

 

A few summers ago, we had to have a portion of our front yard dug up to repair the gas line. One might hope to find a treasure buried beneath all that dirt, but we weren’t so lucky. We mostly found rocks. One puzzling thing we did find was a random black cable. The length was indeterminable, and the cut end was just sticking out of the dirt like a curious garter snake. Though we’ve been assured that it isn’t connected to a power source and no electrical current is pulsing through it, we have left it there. Each time I walk past it, I am reminded of what it is to be rendered inept, defective, powerless.

 

I’ve felt the same as that cable many times, hopeless and broken down, unable to make a difference or exchange bad for good, disconnected from power. But I’m told in the Scriptures that I’m not so powerless as I sometimes feel. I’ve just forgotten where the Power is coming from.

 

In Ephesians 3, Paul says: “…I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” (NLT)

 

Tapping into the power of God’s spirit gives me strength, peace and confidence, but more than that, it allows me to be an adapter. Wired for the highest voltage and fitted with the ground wire of Christ-like humility, I am equipped to help pass that spirit along to others.

 

After Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, his disciples got busy spreading the Good News. There were times when their message was met with acceptance and joy, and other times when they were run out of town. Once, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. They had healed a lame beggar and a crowd had formed, anxious for answers and more miracles. The Jewish leaders didn’t like where this was heading, so they wanted to shut them up. Acts 4 tells us that Peter and John were filled with the power of the Spirit as they boldly refused to stop speaking about Jesus. The Jewish leaders eventually gave in and released them.

 

Peter and John hurried to meet with the other disciples to share what had happened. They prayed together, asking God for courage and even more miracles and healings. Next, the place where they were meeting shook, vibrating with the presence of God’s Spirit. But this isn’t where it ends. If this were a Marvel movie, we might expect that those who were electrified would become selfish and power-hungry. Instead, we read that they were compelled to testify to the story of Jesus and give away all that they had so that no one was needy.

 

When I feel helpless, I can still help others. When I feel powerless, I can still plug into the power of God’s Spirit. And when I feel defeated, there is still something I can control. I can choose to submit to the will of the One who ultimately holds all the power.

Looking for my enemy

I was in Atlanta last weekend with my older son to watch him play a couple of soccer games. Not being a sporty person myself, I have had to learn a lot about the world of competitive sports over the past decade or so. But I’m not just referring to the rules of the game (although I definitely came in without knowing anything about “offsides” and “corner kicks” and “slide tackles”). A big part of my education was trying to understand the psyche of the players and fans.

 

For instance, it’s common for parents from Team A to suspect that preferential treatment is being shown by the referees to the players of Team B (“Come on, Ref! How’s that a foul?!”), but to feel entitled to the exact same treatment for their own players (“Finally! You have a yellow card! Use it!”). It’s cuckoo.

 

I usually tell myself that the only reason my son is on this team and not that one is basic geography. Same age, same sport, different cities. That’s it. Those boys on the other team aren’t our enemy. And although I might like to throttle those screaming parents from the other team, they aren’t my enemy either. Neither are the opposing coaches and the referees. But when we get angry, we humans seem to want to find someone to be angry with. We want a villain. That kid who just fouled my son will do, or maybe the referee who didn’t call it the “right” way. Something like hate boils up in us and comes spewing out. It’s not pretty, folks.

 

Jesus had a lot to say about how to regard those you’ve labeled as your enemies. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (NLT)

 

When Jesus stood on a mountainside and taught those words to the large crowd who were following him from town to town, he was giving them one example after another about how to be an alternative to what the World offered. He told them that God blesses the poor and the humble and the persecuted. He told them to be salt and light—to be different.

 

Jesus wasn’t necessarily referring to my conduct during a soccer game or our behavior towards others during this election season, but it’s applicable all the same. It’s a waste of time to villainize those around us. Friend or foe, we are called to love them all anyway.

Alarming

I can’t think of anything more confusing than suddenly being awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, unless it’s suddenly being awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night while you’re away from home, sleeping on a pull-out sofa in a strange hotel and the fire alarm is blaring up and down the halls.

 

This was my recent experience, and I’m still recovering from it. Our 9-year old’s first response was “I didn’t do anything! It wasn’t my fault!” which it wasn’t, but I sure would like to know what he was dreaming about at 1:45 am. This information might be very revealing.

 

My husband, our two sons and I hopped up and threw on shoes before shuffling down the stairwell with the rest of the hotel’s sleepy occupants. We all stood in the parking lot, huddled in groups and waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. To entertain myself, I played a favorite game of mine which I call “Look How Everybody Thinks Differently.” Though it was a chilly 40-something degrees, several people were wearing only shorts and t-shirts, and some were even bare-footed. Others had jackets or blankets draped over their shoulders. One couple emerged outside fully dressed and pulling wheeled suitcases toward their car. They are my first suspects in The Case of Someone Pulled the Fire Alarm. Some joked, others fumed, but most seemed to assume the alarm signified no real threat to any of us.

 

The fire truck arrived with only lights flashing and no siren, a sign that this was going to be speedily resolved and we’d be happily snoozing away in no time. But moments after the alarm was turned off and we were back in our room, the alarm started back up again. Beeeeep, beeeep, beep it repeated every 25 seconds, followed by a 4 second break, a more clipped beeep, beep, and then it started all over again. (I know this because I counted.) More than an hour after it began, the alarm finally stopped and, if we could also stop the residual ringing in our heads, we could fall asleep.

 

It seems we’ve become overly comfortable with alarms. More often than not, we ignore the warnings because they come way too frequently, or we find that it’s easier to assume that it’s just a drill. Murder hornets and melting icecaps. Wildfires raging in California and derechos blowing through the Tennessee Valley. Widespread racism, harassment in the workplace, child abuse, identity theft…I could go on and on, but it’s too depressing and I might have to curl up in a ball, making it really difficult to type.

 

Reading the Bible gives me insight about being watchful but in a way which won’t drive me to the fetal position. 1 Peter 5 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (NIV)

 

I see four steps to follow as I attempt to up my Watchfulness Game: 1) From a place of extreme humility, acknowledge that God is in control. 2) With the knowledge that this All-Powerful God cares for me, transfer my worry to His mighty and capable shoulders. 3) Realizing that the devil is watching and ready to pounce, be equally as alert. 4) Sustained by my faith and backed by an army of fellow believers, refuse to follow the devil.

 

With God’s help, I can be prepared and watchful without giving up the peace He promises.

Famous

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my sisters and I were in Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville, shopping with a couple who were friends of my parents. A woman approached us and asked the couple our ages and commented on our general cuteness. Although the woman might have seemed like any ordinary Nashville-area resident out running errands, I recognized her voice instantly. Even without her trademark straw hat topped with fake flowers and $1.98 price tag dangling to the side, I had watched enough episodes of Hee Haw to know it was Minnie Pearl.

 

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be famous. To be recognized by people everywhere I went. To be mobbed by fans and photographers. To have the ability to give people a lasting memory and a treasured anecdote to impress friends and strangers just by being in the same room with them and acknowledging their existence in the universe. No wonder so many are drawn to the pursuit of fame, especially considering that at our very core, one of the most basic human desires is to be known.

 

Even though Jesus’ friends had the ultimate example of humility standing in front of them, they weren’t exempt from this clamor for fame. They even argued about it, speculating who would be the greatest in the kingdom and right on the heels of Jesus’ exclamation about his imminent death.

 

Jesus’ reply to their earthly ideas about fame was to bring a child to set in front of them. Then He said something that stopped their quarreling while also no doubt giving them a riddle to puzzle out during future fireside moments of quiet contemplation. “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” -Luke 9:48 (NLT)

 

What did they think about this seemingly backwards path to greatness? How could accepting a lowly child give you access to the Prince of Peace and the Mighty King of the Universe? But Jesus was the master of these mind-blowing assertions about righteous living. He wanted them to understand the vanity of their kind of greatness. He wanted them to take a giant bite of the Humble Pie he had sliced up for them. It was as if He was saying, “Stop looking for ways to step on each other as you climb to the top. Instead, look down and notice these little children. Giving them your attention won’t make you world famous, but these actions will gain you fame in heaven.”

 

So strive to be famous—famously kind, famously generous, famously brave. Win awards for being the best listener, the most thoughtful, the truest friend. Hold the Box Office record for the highest-grossing number of encouraging words. Make the Fortune 500 list for the richest, most genuine friendships.

 

Paparazzi may not camp out in your front yard, waiting to take photos of you as you pick up your newspaper dressed in your bathrobe, but you will be on the real path to greatness.