This is a long, but important post... brew a cup and join me.
I’ve just one more story to share from Europe, another Christmas story of sorts, and one that has affected me profoundly. We have dear friends who own a farm high in the Austrian Alps, and every year I visit them. This year, my wife being with me, visiting the animals in the barn was a high priority, much higher in fact, than other years. In fact, we exited the car and, much to my disappointment, moved from the 25(f) outside air into the balmy 35(f) air of the barn! While walking towards the barn, I must confess that cookies and coffee sounded far more appealing than visiting the barn. My disappointment turned to disgust when, after some time in the barn, I noticed the smell of uric acid and ammonia. Actually, noticed is an understatement. I became overwhelmed by it, and left the barn, choosing the freezing winds over the strong offending odors. Standing out in the cold, I pondered why the animals weren’t offended. Did they have no frame of reference to realize what they were missing, to know that a fine potpourri of cloves, cinnamon, and pine oils would revive their lagging spirits like nothing else? I’m a big fan of aromas in case you didn’t know, and so I played with this little mystery for a few moments when suddenly it hit my like a ton of bricks, as I noticed the Christmas lights on the far side of the valley: Jesus was born amidst these smells. We like fir, pine, cedar, cloves, and ginger, and citrus fruits breaking open, and all the other smells that have come to be Christmas for us, but all of those are Disneyland fairytales. If we’re to be real about it, we’d bring the smell of the barnyard into the house; decaying fecal matter, piss, animal hair, rotting hay and fresh hay. That’s what Christmas smelled like the first time. What happened? Sometimes I think our ‘re-creation’ of proper Christmas aromas parallel our ‘re-creation’ of proper Christian ‘success’. Jesus was born into poverty and never really did find a place to lay his head. He didn’t complain about it; it’s just the way it was. But I don’t see any homeless people today on the covers of magazines, sacred or secular, marked out as world changers. Our vision of success certainly includes material well being – just ask Joel Osteen, best-selling Christian author and pastor of a church that occupies what was previously the Astrodome in Houston. I’m don't think that material well being is inherently problematic, but I’m awfully certain it isn’t a criterion for success. Jesus began with 12 followers. His popularity grew until multitudes were chasing him like deadheads. Undaunted, he preached about eating flesh and drinking blood until nearly everyone went away and in the end, when he could have used a few friends, even the 12 founding members abandoned Him. Is this the kind of person you’d put in charge of developing leaders or speaking at motivational seminars? His resume would assure Him of never even getting an interview. Yet today, we’re somehow convinced that following Jesus makes us super effective leaders, by which of course we mean having the capacity to cast vision, catalyze workers, and move events and people so that vision becomes reality. You think? The leader hanging on a cross whose best man is cursing his name as he trembles in fear before a teenage door maid isn’t the best poster child of leadership success in my world. Jesus was humble, broken, deeply human, and always crossing boundaries that our evil world has erected to keep reconciliation and healing at bay. But are humility, brokenness and familiarity with the frailties of our humanity goals of today’s upwardly spiritually mobile? We might give lip service to it, but when I get out of the city and sit in my writing cabin, I wonder: What does real success smell like? Big crowds? Book contracts? Flashy speaking ability? Wealth and health? These are the spiritual potpourri of our day and when these things become our definitions of success we’ve failed. The reality is this: Success has an offending stench! It is the stench of brokenness, vulnerability, dependency, confession, and humility. Successful people are crying sometimes, because they’re under deep conviction over their sins, or their heart is breaking with a desperate desire to see God do something in the life of another, or even because the last thing in the world they want to do is exactly the thing God is asking of them (not exactly following one’s passion would you say?) Successful people are crossing boundaries, and when they do, it means that the well dressed are eating with those in rags, the well sheltered are sleeping with homeless, the rich and poor have touched hearts, and even gay and straight people are listening to each other as if they’re all people loved by God. Of course, those who live that way often pay a price. For some it will even mean the spilling of blood. And that also stinks… and that also is success. Read the Sermon on the Mount one more time and you’ll see just what I mean. I want to be careful here because I run the risk in an essay like this one of being thoroughly misperceived. “Richard hates the institutional church. He’s having 2nd thoughts about church buildings.” Oh, well yes, I’ve had 3rd, 4th, 5th, 45th thoughts about church buildings in my lifetime, but I’m convinced that they need to exist on a case by case basis. But let’s be honest. Wealth, numerical growth, and building projects, are kind of like potpourri. There’s really nothing wrong with potpourri. Most of us prefer it to raw bathroom smells, which is why it’s sitting there on the back of millions of American toilets this very night, easing our inhaling. The danger enters into our lives though when we come to the point where, like me, we’re so in love with cedar and cinnamon that we have a hard time enduring bad smells, or worse, begin to avoid them entirely. Today for example, I was trying to fix a broken pipe, and I ended pulling a toothbrush matted in old stinky hair out of a broken pipe, along with about a cup and a half of hair. The smell was so bad I nearly threw up. What if I’m the same way when it comes to spiritual aromas? What if I’m so easily offended by rejection that I twist my words and smooth out the rough edges, kind of changing the stench of success into a lovely clove scent so as to avoid rejection? What if I do that? Well, we simply can’t allow ourselves to go down that road. We need to encourage one another to pursue the real gospel and real success, being neither discouraged by the absence of, nor addicted to the presence of cinnamon. I want to go on record as saying that the cedar and cloves (and coffee, and skiing, and candles, and fresh salmon) I love inhaling, revealed in our lovely, affluent, educated cultures, is the blessing of potpourri – not the stench of success. Success can come in the midst of potpourri, but not without the smells of brokenness, trials, loss, crosses also present. Stay there – at the manger. Don’t just look. Inhale! Let the ammonia burn your inner nostrils, maybe until you want to throw up. And then remember, this is where the greatest success in history happened. Please share you thoughts... and of course: Merry Christmas!
The travels are over. The gifts are purchased. The sermon is prepared (never actually fully prepared until spoken; perhaps better to say it’s “prepared”). I’ve spent this day on the road north because there’s a water heater in need of replacement, and some missions trip contacts to make. So now, I’m sitting in the writing cabin, grateful for the chance to do just that, because life has been full enough without writing over the past few weeks!