November 25, 2012

Cringeworthy Moment #1

Everyone has a few cringeworthy moments in their lives that they remember, or that they fail to forget no matter how much therapy they pay for.  Here’s one of mine:

When I was a young church pastor cutting my teeth in a WA church a big name from the UK’s version of our denomination came to speak at our annual denominational pow-wow.  He was a fantastic bible speaker, has written a few books and is a good bloke.  Just before he left Perth my boss and I were asked to take him and his wife out for dinner, along with our spouses. Why us I don’t know, perhaps the denomination considered us the bright young things (epic fail there – Ed).  Anyway it was a good chance to pick his brains, talk about ministry experiences and share a good meal.

Now that very week – an even bigger name in UK evangelicalism had dramatically ended his marriage in a move that sent shock waves around the evangelical world – with ripples to this day. How big a story you ask? Well it made the pages of The West Australian newspaper (well, page 23 anyway – editorial Ed). 

I think we were just about to tuck into a juicy steak, after a good round of introductions and drinks, when I casually asked the question.  “So, how terrible to read about the situation regarding (INSERT NAME HERE).”  His almost equally casual response, “Oh yes, he’s been going through a fairly testing time figuring out his future.” was probably too casual. Steaks continued to be eaten, wives continued chatting, drinks glasses continued to be clinked.   By this time all of the alarm bells in an older, wiser head would have been ringing, and a red strobe light would have been flashing through his eyeballs.  Older, wiser maybe, but not in the head or eyes of our younger foolhardy 30 year old in his first church position.  I charged on breezily – a modern day Light Brigade of one. “Oh no, that’s not what I mean.  I read in the paper today that etc, etc, etc…..”

At this point – as the scene slowed down to car-crash speed – his eyes narrowed, he put down his knife and fork and looked at me across the table. “I know (INSERT NAME HERE) very well. That’s an outrageous thing to say. I’m on the (INSERT ORGANISATION’S NAME) board with him. I speak at conferences with him. I can’t believe you are saying it. I think I would know if it were true.”

Fortunately at that point dinner was over and we all got up and went our separate ways, so we dodged a bullet there. NOT!  We had to sit there for another excruciating hour or so, dinner tasting like ash, bigwig speaker glowering at me across the table, trying to make small talk and me longing, just longing, for the parousia at that very moment.

The problem was, of course, that it was true.  Our conference speaker would get on the plane the next day, read the UK newspaper handed to him by the stewardess (it was the day before online newspapers) and arrive home within 24 hours to a right, royal evangelical mess. Reflecting on it the next day my boss sorta laughed and said, “He’s never going to remember the no-name who told him, but he’s never going to forget the moment he heard it!”

The difference between being a “name” and being a “no-name” is part and parcel of our celebrity culture. In celebrity culture the constancy of a celebrity on our screens lulls us into the false view that we know them and, that given a right set of circumstances, they might even know us, or want to!  But have you actually ever bumped into a celebrity?  For a split second you almost say “hi” before you realise that you are actually strangers to each other, and that they just might call security if you push it too hard! I well remember walking past John Malkovich in London, having just read an article about him, and being struck by that feeling, although Malkovich’s famed simmering malevolence kept me at bay!

This, alas, seeps its way into Christian culture, even evangelical, tick all of the Reformed boxes, Christianity.  And for us, our form of celebrity reaches its height at the conference – the BIG conference, where the names of those whose books we read, podcasts we download, and ministries we seek to emulate, arrive on our shores.  And like all “names” in celebrity it is easy to think that because we have access to their material, because they are so familiar to us, that we know them. Of course we know that this is nonsense, but it seeps into us nonetheless.

And it is no less the case for conference speakers who share the stage, the committees and the book reviews with other conference speakers.  Their lives often intersect at important events where meaningful talks are given and big ideas are discussed.  It is easy therefore for them to think that they know each other well, when in fact all they may be doing is sharing the evangelical stratosphere with each other, rather than the day-to-day trenches of Christian warfare: marriage, holiness, self-discipline, love, humility, the places where decisions with eternal consequences can be made.

I well remember Don Carson’s great anecdote, now in his book From the Resurrection to his Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days (reviewed here in Justin Taylor’s Gospel Coalition blog with full example provided).   Carson relates the radical story of a Christian graduate student who told a university enquirer that, if he were truly interested in Christianity, to come and live with him and watch his life.  No amount of arguments, brilliant deductions or apologetics would convince a sceptic as much as a well-lived, joined-up life would. His life would never be as exposed as it would when someone was the fly-on-the-wall.  It is as true for the “names” and “faces” in Christianity as it is for the “no-names” like the rest of us, because God is no respecter of persons.  Christian leaders need people to ask “How’s your marriage?” “Are you practicing godliness/love/humility?” They need it when they are a no-name and they need it when, and if, they become a “name.”  Becoming the Tiger Woods of Christian culture is not an option because it’s not just the conference circuit you might miss out on, but something far more important – life in the age to come.

So whether you are a Christian “no-name” or a Christian “name” reading this (who are you kidding McAlpine – Ed) the lessons are clear. Firstly each of us must keep short accounts with each other and before God, never being lulled into thinking that our external activities make up for the trench warfare of everyday life, no matter how far up the Christian celebrity tree we climb.  Secondly, we must resist the lure of putting people up on pedestals and then being shocked when they prove to be less than Jesus.  Such an attitude is increasingly prevalent in our social-media saturated culture, a culture that Christians have been early adopters of. And thirdly, pray for your leaders and for those with authority over you.  Satan would love nothing more than tearing a few of them down, and sending the ripples around the church.

Oh, and fourthly, if you’re a young 30 year old having dinner with a “name” from the Christian culture, sit down, eat your steak, drink your drink, learn some ministry lessons, don’t over-reach yourself, then go home in humility and with some peace of mind.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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