Last Sunday Michael preached a sermon on James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples who, with a stunning lack of humility, conspired to reserve for themselves the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and on his left in his coming glory. Can you imagine? Wanting to be special like that? Sheesh.
Of course, as Michael suggested in his sermon, we probably all have a bit of that – ambition, a drive to be successful, to be great even – or at the very least, a need to be recognized, affirmed. In its most basic form, it seems to me, this is really just another way of saying that we all need to be loved.
Of course, our need to be loved can play itself out in many ways, some of them not so humble. Often, our need to be loved plays itself out as a need to be loved over and above everyone else, to be greater, better, more special. I mean really, James and John were already Jesus’ disciples for crying out loud! What more could you want?
I doubt Jesus’ response was all that satisfying to James and John, and it can be hard medicine for most of us still today: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…” (Mark 10: 43-45) Jesus doesn’t say that we can’t be special, that we can’t be great, but he redefines greatness. As Michael put it, Jesus asks not that we give up our drive to be first, but rather that we turn our drive to be “first in love … first in service.” Michael suggested that Jesus “democratizes ‘greatness’ if you will. Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve…. Beloved," Michael continued, "Service is the rent we pay for the room we take up in this world. Not something we do in our spare time, with what’s left over. But our purpose in life. Everyone can be great. And it’s one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no one can sincerely try and help another without helping himself. The best way to become yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. Everyone can be great. ‘We cannot truly live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a 1000 invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run first as causes and then return as results’ (Herman Melville). Everyone can be great. We can’t foresee our lives’ twists and turns, but one thing we can know: the ones who live best will be those who’ve sought and found how to serve. Everyone can be great. Children of God, Disciples of Christ, find your real job, and do it. Understand real success and go for it. Everyone can be great. Amen.” (Michael Ward Caine, sermon to Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 18, 2009)
I agree with Michael that everyone can be great. I agree that Jesus calls us to a different standard of greatness than the world calls us to, and that Jesus’ standard is how well we love and serve one another.
I agree, wholeheartedly, indeed this is at the heart of my faith as a Christian … and yet, and yet … that doesn’t feel like the whole story to me. Or rather, I should say, that’s not my whole story. And I want to tell you my whole story about service and greatness and my need to be loved. I want to tell you because I think it is sort of easy to be a little polly-anna about how nice and good and right it is to serve others, but I am here to tell you it can be pretty fucking hard too. And our actions, that “run first as causes and then return as results”? Sometimes the results aren’t what you’d expect. And you still find yourself yearning for a pat on the back, to be special, to be loved.
A couple of years ago I stopped blogging at the wide tent for several reasons. One was that I found myself starting to feel ambitious as a writer, wanting to be read, and recognized, to be one of the important and successful bloggers – but I didn’t like the writer I became when I was motivated by ambition. I felt that my words, in my mouth, on my fingertips, that they were often righteous, and lacked humility, that I was trying to bring craft to my work not so that it would serve others but so that it would reflect well on me. And when I did try to approach my writing with humility, I would just be left wondering, “Who the hell am I anyway? Why do I think I have anything so special to say?” Either way, it was sort of paralyzing.
Another reason I stopped blogging was that I had hit a wall when it came to writing about race and poverty. I was and still am pretty in awe of Dawn’s writing about adoption, and as I have said before, I felt, and still feel, like I don’t have a whole lot to add. But poverty and racism – I felt like I actually did have something to say, and I was tired of the same old predictable white liberal script -- I wanted to break out, and talk about these things in new ways … but again, I just felt paralyzed.
Most importantly, though, I stopped blogging because I took a job, and I just really didn’t have any time. For almost two years, from early in 2007 until late fall of 2008, I became very involved in directing my church’s summer and after school programs for children and youth living in poverty in a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Kensington. By the end of 2008, I had burned through just about everything I thought I knew about myself, and I just collapsed.
Writing again here at my goodly heritage has been wildly theraputic, and while I don’t have all the answers about why I write, and how I write, and what it all means, I do know that I don’t feel so paralyzed any more. I feel like I have emerged with a new voice, and I will admit I like it. I also will admit that I like getting nice comments from all of you. I don’t know if I have more ambition than that right now, but I’m also pretty sure that if I do, it’s okay. And, I think, maybe I’m ready to tell you my story, my complicated story about service and greatness and needing to be loved.
This story is long, and it will most likely unfold over many months. So stay tuned. If you feel so moved, drop me a comment now and again and let me know what you think. I’m not too proud to tell you that it really does make my day!