Sunday, November 09, 2008

Gold medals

I was feeling pretty self–congratulatory the other day for having made the 10 hour drive from Zambia to Malawi without any help (though it was offered) from my driving companions. After all, such a thing surely ranks slightly lower on the sacrificial scale than 30 day fasts and slightly higher than sitting through a Sandra Bullock movie (any Sandra Bullock movie).

I suppose it goes back to that whole traffic frustration thing and its resultant feelings of unworthiness. I think we Christians like to feel holy (aren’t we suppose to?). And when we don’t we sometimes go to great lengths to try and create it, as though holiness were as easily conjured as a batch of Rice Krispie treats. When the stains of human nature appear for all to see, we tend to try and blot them out with our best efforts of self-sacrifice. In light of our faults we declare, “Yes, I know that thing I did over there was terrible. But forget about that. That was yesterday. Instead, look at this! LOOK AT THIS AMAZINGLY SACRIFICIAL THING I JUST DID!

And so, I had been walking around for a few days with that 10 hour drive dangling from around my neck as though it were Michael Phelps 8 gold medals, trying to work it into as many conversations as I could.

Good Morning, Jerry. How are you?

I’m good...still recovering from THAT 10 HOUR DRIVE which I drove all by myself as a sacrificial act in humble service to my fellow man. Other than that, I’m doing O.K.

But then today over lunch I was given a healthy dose of reality. A friend conveyed a story to me that was told by one of the pastors traveling with us, a Zambian named Pastor Zulu, who started a church among lepers.

Yes, lepers. Which I’m pretty sure pegs out the sacrificial scale.

Apparently after our trip, he conveyed a story to a friend about Paula. When we had stopped to make the border crossing from Zambia to Malawi, we all piled into the tiny station to show our passports and sign our name in the log book – an exercise that mostly proves that we are willing to stand in line. Which is really all that is required of anyone in Africa.

Anyway, Pastor Zulu had said to my friend, “That Paula! She never fails to show me the character of Christ.”

He went on to recount how at the border crossing when he needed a pen and turned to ask for one, he noticed Paula was behind him. She had silently let the rest of us (gold medals and all), beat a path to the log book as quickly as we could. She waited and let everyone else go, and then took her turn.

I suppose a guy who plants a church in a leper colony, knows a genuine act of humility when he sees it. And in Paula waiting to be last, he saw just that. And the simplicity of it is dumbfounding.

Anytime service becomes about us, it ceases to be service and becomes merely impotent maneuvering. It is rarely the grandiose schemes that we conjure that speak the divine language of humility. Rather, it’s the little things. Humility is best heard, not from the mountain tops of life, but from the cracks and crevices of our daily routine. That is where an injection of sacrifice and service finds its voice because that is the place we least expect it.

In our daily routine, we expect others to try and best us, to jump in line ahead of us, to take the last cookie and then give us that helpless, “sorry...should have been here earlier!” look that in turn causes us to think things for which we could be imprisoned in most states.

Jesus said, “And whoever wants to be first, must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45).

But its not always easy. Being a servant does not come naturally for me. I don’t want to get in the back of the line. I want to be first. I want recognition not obscurity. I want to be on the podium with my national anthem playing in the background and some famous athlete of yesteryear handing me flowers and putting a medal the size of clock around my neck (not that I’m so fond of flowers and medals, per se – but you get my drift).

But that’s not how it works with God. Servanthood is never the product of impulse. It doesn’t come by way of calculation or scheming but it flows from who we are. A servant doesn’t decide to put others first. For a servant, others are first.

And Pastor Zulu was right.

That Paula. She never fails to show me the character of Christ.

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