Yes, I took August off, and a bit of September, which is the advantage of writing a blog called ‘slowmission.’ As a new(ish) born grandad of a two-year-old and a five-month-old I had things to do in August, mostly involving lying still in a dark room.
I used the lockdown to write two little books. One has been brewed from all the blog articles I’ve done and I hope to say more about that soon. The other I want to share over the coming weeks. This title might end up being The Sandwich, because it explores the way Christian believers are sandwiched between the promises of God and the world we all know, where you stub your toe, lose your keys, and worry.
The Sandwich, if indeed we end up calling it that, started life as a series of columns I wrote for a magazine in Singapore. This magazine was aimed at the many young adults who were finding faith in God for the first time. Here’s a chapter.
You just can’t get the heroes these days. In previous eras of church history, the world seemed to be full of clean-limbed individuals who lived hard-working and praiseworthy lives while preaching the gospel, shutting the mouths of lions and being sawn in two, often all at once.
Today we live in a world where even the best of us are seen as badly flawed. And even those squeaky-clean saints of former years have been re-graded. No decent biography or obituary is complete these days without a listing, tactful or otherwise, of a few of the subject’s faults and misdemeanours.
Like a photo culled from the web and then enlarged, heroes don’t seem to have that fine-grained resolution that means their lives look good on billboards.
To take just one example, the pioneering founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, fearless fighter for the poor and needy, once got so mad with his children that he took a gun and shot the family dog. When he realized how upset they were, he had it stuffed and brought back into the house. Then he got mad again because they didn’t thank him. He was one of many leaders down to the present time who were perhaps better pioneers than they were parents. How many children of Christian heroes could tell stories of tyranny? Plenty.
It was also said of Booth that orders he gave were to be obeyed without question. However, if anyone tried to give orders to him, he was free to ignore them because he must obey God and not men. This is a handy tip for team-working that I expect you to file for later use.
It’s better this way
Yet even in this cynical age, we Christians can still fall into the beguiling trap of hero worship. This is how it seems to work. We go along in the Christian life like Goldilocks, finding some things too hot for us, and other things too cold; some things too wild, other things too tame. Then we stumble upon someone who just seems to have everything just right. We like what they say or write. Or we like their churches, or their leadership. It’s such a relief to find them. These people seem to embody just what we aspire to in Christian living. What heroes they are. We start collecting recordings of their talks and buying their books.
The apostle Paul found plenty of hero-worship when he listened to a report about the church he planted in Corinth. Some people thought he, Paul, was everything you could wish for in an apostle. Others preferred the eloquent and powerful speaker Apollos. Still others spoke fondly of Peter, who of course had worked with Jesus for three years, was presumably a fund of colourful stories, and of whom Jesus had said, ‘on this rock I will build my church.’
Paul wouldn’t have any of it. I think he found hero-worship, at its root, a sign of not-being-properly-grown-up. He told the Corinthians, we are all your servants.
So two things: your hero isn’t perfect, and he will let you down. And those other guys who you already know aren’t perfect, and who you think don’t quite get it right, maybe they have things to say into your life after all. By extension this is true of denominations and movements too. All kinds of Christian writers on the bookshelf can bless you. Bible-Presbyterians and charismatics can both feed your soul. In my view.
You’re the ones in charge of your lives, concludes Paul. Don’t follow people or movements blindly or totally. Weigh things. Take responsibility. Be your own person before God.
That’s a sample of what Paul was always saying to new Christians, of course: don’t be faddish, don’t be blown off course, don’t be a slave to the latest trends, be deeply rooted in God for yourself.
Remember their faith
There is another side to this, though. Let’s not be hero-worshippers. But let’s not cut everyone and everything down to our puny size either.
When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wanted to stiffen the spines of the people he was writing to he reminded them of the saints of the past. He didn’t claim they were perfect, or that we should model our lives on theirs exactly. He didn’t set them forth as an example of how it should be done, in the good old days, when saints were real saints. But he did say, ‘consider their faith’.
They weren’t perfect, but they stuck it out. They failed, their hearts failed sometimes, it was difficult – the Bible is full of their failings — but they stuck it out.
Paul says the same to Timothy, almost his last written words: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings …’ (2 Tim 3: 10-11)
And then he says,
‘Continue in what you have learned.’ Stick it out like I did. Do better than me, learn from my mistakes, do things differently, but stick it out. Keep the faith.
It comes to this
In summary, then, how do we treat Christian heroes? Well, don’t build your life on them. Take what they have to give. And remember their faith.
You wouldn’t want to do things exactly the way William Booth did. He got a lot wrong. But the poor lined the streets for his funeral. His children followed him into ministry. The organization he founded still bears fruit generations later. He kept the faith. A (flawed) hero. Just like you.