Looking for a Little Respect

“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

I will ask for “the grace that I may be received under His standard, first, in the most perfect spiritual poverty, and should it so please His Divine Majesty to choose me, also in actual poverty; secondly in bearing reproaches and offenses, thus imitating Him more perfectly, provided only I can suffer them without sin on part of any other person or displeasure to His Divine Majesty” (St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius).

The inexorable pull of modern life in America is toward respectability.  One way or another, people live their lives in ways calculated to bring them honor in the context of the people or ideals they themselves honor.  If I think that hitting home runs, for instance, is a task worthy of respect, then I practice hitting in such a way as to increase my chances of hitting home runs.  If I think sewing is a demonstration of a certain kind of honorable expertise, I will practice sewing in ways that people who sew well will respect.  If I think making money is a way of earning the respect of those whom I respect, then I will work to make the kind of money that people whom I respect will respect.

Everybody knows it.  I try to write and preach in ways in which people whom I think write and preach well would approve.  Who's immune?  And that is, perhaps, how it should be.  Whether it's carpentry or microbiology, making free throws or cleaning fish, building the space shuttle or rebuilding a carburetor, people, we hope, care about practicing their craft with the requisite skill and integrity.  We assume that when the surgeon picks up the knife or the attorney redrafts the will or the USDA inspector checks the ground beef that not only do they know how to do their work, but that they understand the importance of doing it well.  We want them to care about meeting standards, about finding respect among their colleagues.  We care about the fact that they seek to impress the people who taught them their craft.  Given the choice between the overachiever and the apathetic slacker, if it’s my teeth about to be drilled, I want the overachiever every time.

All of which, of course, applies to Christians.  Ideally, we strive to practice our faith with integrity.  We seek to walk the walk faithfully.  We crave the honor of the ones we find honorable.  Ultimately, we desire to be pleasing to the one who was pleased to give up his life in dishonor for us.

And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it?  Christians are no different in wanting to live in ways that bring approval.  But the approval we ultimately seek cannot be provided by other human beings.  In fact, Paul says that if he had cared anything about human approval he would have sought another line of work.  Being who God calls us to be often leaves us honored in ways that the world has no way of finding respectable.  And that is because the Christian life finds respectability precisely at the point where the world finds failure.  We are honored by a God who finds honor in places the world would never think to look, like, oh, say . . . crosses.

While the rest of the world desperately seeks the honor this world provides (money, fame, glory, education, a big-screen T.V.), Christians seek the honor provided by the one who forsook the honor sought by the world in order to find the honor bestowed only by God.

St. Ignatius tells us to pray not only for spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3), but, if it be God’s will, for actual poverty.  He tells us to pray to bear “reproaches and offenses,” rather than to pray for the world’s approval.  Why?  Because the call of the Christian life is the call to the imitation of Christ, who bore reproaches and offenses.  Humiliation, apparently, is the name of the path he took on his way to saving the world.

Only in a group of folks as weird as Christians would this reverse logic make any kind of sense.

If respect is what it’s about, I guess in the end it all depends on whose respect you really want.

Pondering a Prayer for Politicians

I'm like a lot of people in America right now: I don't think much of politicians. It seems to me that the new batch is even worse than the old ones. And the old ones where bad enough. I don't get the impression that many of them have the sorts of qualities most extolled in scripture. The "fruit of the Spirit" has been far from conspicuous (Gal. 5:22-23).

Sure, there are politicians who are quite public about their faith. They use God-words and speak of their personal devotion to Jesus. They may participate in prayer meetings. Some are big promoters of displays of official ceremonial religion: God in the pledge, God in the national motto, posting the Ten Commandments, orchestrated prayer in school and so forth.  But while they push the appearance of religion in public life, they seem to use this as a substitute for the practical reality of biblical faith, something sorely lacking in the policies they pursue.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think Jesus ever provided a political platform he wanted his disciples to adopt to run the nations of the world. I don't think there can be such a thing as a genuinely Christian nation. The only Christian nation is that Christ-centered nation without geographical borders: the church (1 Peter 2:9). Still I wish those politicians who draw attention to their Christian faith would allow something that looks a bit like Jesus to seep into their stated vision of how things ought to be. It seems to be missing. The very politicians who use the most God-talk seem to be the ones least influenced by the priorities of Jesus or the highest values of the Hebrew scriptures.

I was reflecting on Psalm 72 earlier today and it struck me that this is a prayer politicians ought to ponder and that we ought to ponder as we evaluate politicians. While the prayer is for an ancient king, and Senators, Representatives and the President are not kings, still they have the responsibility to govern. This Psalm points to the qualities that make a leader praise-worthy. We should note both what is included and what is excluded in the text. The prayer asks God to lead the king in ways that will result in "prosperity for the people" (vs. 3) and abundance in food so the people may be satisfied (vs.16). Further, the prayer asks, "In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound" (vs.7).

But what is this leader who is responsible for governing the nation supposed to actually do? The Psalm is very clear in its emphasis. He is to "judge your people with righteousness" but note that a particular class of people are given special attention: "and your poor with justice" (vs. 2). These words are directly linked to the prayer for prosperity. In this same vein, the prayer continues, "May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (vs. 4).There is no suggestion that the righteous leader should give similar attention to the interests of the strong or wealthy. This strikes me as a significant omission, not one found in contemporary American political leaders.

The Psalmist can't seem to emphasize enough the importance of the leader's attention to those who are less advantaged: "For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (vs.12-14). There is no way to govern "righteously" that neglects this focus. Of the leader who does the sorts of things he names, the Psalmist prays,"May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun" (vs.17). Where do we find leaders of this quality who govern with the emphasis this scripture commends? Do we have any in either major party? They seem to be missing in action. I think we should pray for our nation and pray in particular that leaders with the qualities the Psalmist applauds will step forward.

Craig is minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Coral Springs, Florida, Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship and a brand new Granddad who is willing to show pictures of his amazing Grandson if you want to see a few.

By Craig M. Watts

Humble and Hospitable -- A Lectionary Meditation

Success in life requires self-promotion. It also involves reciprocity. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you promote me, I’ll promote you. But there are dangers in both self-promotion and mutual back-scratching. They can backfire. You get something of this in the texts for this week. Both the reading from Proverbs and the gospel lesson speak of circumspection, recognizing your place, and not overstepping bounds. Standing in between these two texts, Proverbs and Luke, is the epistle of Hebrews, which commends a life of mutual love and hospitality. Humility and hospitality, two virtues that we would be wise to develop and nurture – not just so we can be successful in life, but so we can live out the promise of the life of faith.

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