Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Following the Followers

When I was in eighth grade, all of the students took a vocational aptitude test--the kind of standardized assessment that lets you know whether you might be a good mechanic or nurse or firefighter. Other than the fact that I found the results amusing, I don't remember anything that that test predicted about my career. But I do remember very vividly when the counselor came into our classroom to ask us about our future. "How many of you want to go to college?" she asked. Every hand in the room shot up. "Hmmm," she continued. "I appreciate your interest, but the truth is that college isn't right for everyone. For many of you, vocational school or on-the-job training after high school will be more appropriate." More appropriate? For my whole life, I had been told that I could do anything I wanted to do if I set my mind to it. This was a shocking revelation. No, I wasn't worried about my own future, but it still felt like cold water was being thrown on the dreams of everyone in the class.

The world is full of leaders and followers, and the world definitely needs both, but I don't know anyone who encourages his children to strive to be a follower. As Steve Pankey wrote in his sermon last Sunday, the premier job in elementary classrooms is the line leader. No one expects the Star Student to be fourth in line. Yes, the "caboose" has its own special place as leading from the back, but parents like me get excited when we see our children in the front of the line, at the head of the class, distinguished from their peers. But being a disciple of Jesus is very different. One does not distinguish herself or himself as a Christian by being out in front. By definition, those of us who claim Jesus as our Lord are those who follow him.

I've spent a lifetime learning how to be a leader. At every turn, I've been encouraged to step out in front. Even in church and in Sunday school, I have been urged to take my place at center stage. That's where I am comfortable, but it's not necessarily where I belong. But it comes so naturally. Learning to be a leader dovetails with all of our deeply held animal instincts. On nature shows, we see species fighting over limited resources. Giant elk battle each other for the right to mate and propagate their genetic material for the next generation. Grizzly bears fight each other to the death in order to retain the right to forage in a particularly fruitful field. And we do the same thing. Whether it's looking for a job or fighting for a promotion or wooing a potential partner, human beings work to distinguish themselves as worthy choices. We are bred to be leaders. And God calls us to give all of that up.

Jesus says, "Follow me." That sounds so simple and easy and inviting. "Yes," we say, eager to set down these burdens that we carry. We'd love to not have to be first in line for a while. It's a relief to let someone else make some decisions for our life. But how long can we keep that up? How willing are we to be second in our own life? How comfortable are we sacrificing our own needs for those of others? How long can we stand not being in charge? How long before we're ready to take over again? How long before we need to stop playing second fiddle--Ed McMahon--and get some recognition for our own? But Jesus doesn't invite us to follow him for a while. We are not training to take over when he steps aside. Being a Christian means following Jesus for ever.

That's hard. It's counterintuitive. It means sacrificing that part of us that wants to be in the spotlight for our own sake. Fortunately, we're not the first to embrace this identity. We don't have to figure that out on our own. Today is the feast of Peter and Paul--two giants of self-sacrifice. We remember them not for the captivating orations they delivered or the thousands of followers they won for Jesus. We remember them because they were followers of Jesus. All of their accomplishments were achieved not for themselves but as followers of Jesus who had submitted their entire lives to their Lord. In 1 Timothy, we read of Paul's final days: "I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He was an apostle in chains. He gave up his freedom in order to better serve Jesus. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told Peter that he would be led in chains to his own death, and Peter accepted that as part of his devotion to his Lord.

But don't confuse being a follower with being silent or meek or timid. There was nothing meek about Paul. And Peter was the rock upon which Jesus built his church. You don't get that kind of reputation for being a shrinking violet. No, following Jesus doesn't mean failing at life. It means letting someone else be in charge. It means using your gifts and talents--perhaps quietly, perhaps boldly--to point to someone else. Following Jesus means giving your will--your choices--over to Jesus and letting everything you do be about glorifying him.

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