September 12, 2008
Stiff Necks and Bruised Reeds
Jesus and the deconstruction of authenticity.
Sometime last year, a short passage of Scripture lodged in my brain. It's been rubbing and needling there ever since and challenging the way I think about ministry.
The passage is from Isaiah 42. Describing Jesus, the Suffering Servant, the prophet says: "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." These beautiful snapshots of compassion and tenderness bring to mind the ministry Henri Nouwen describes in The Wounded Healer (Image, 1979). They present a vision of Christian service that suits my personality. That's why I find it so troubling how discordant this sentiment is with the following words of Jesus: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?"
To put the matter bluntly, this offends my understanding of authenticity. When I think of someone being "real," I usually have in mind that said person behaves the same way around everyone. He's confident "being himself." That's what makes the TV doctor House so endearing. He's a jerk, sure; but he's a jerk everywhere and always. He's so authentic. And, because authenticity is such a central cultural value for people my age, it's easy for me to adopt the mantra, Be yourself. If you're nothing else, be real. But Jesus - he interacted with some people in one way and others in another. That's the textbook (if junior-high) definition of "inauthentic."
I take issue with Jesus' apparent schizophrenia for another reason. I'm a writer and a (some-time) minister trying to make a name for myself in a marketplace - even if it's a Christian marketplace - that rewards people who have a distinct voice, angle, or shtick. It's important for me - and for you, if you want to succeed publicly - to solidify that voice, angle, or shtick and reinforce it consistently so that everyone recognizes my "brand." For some, the shtick is being deeply convicted, confrontational, and brash. For others, it's being open minded, relevant, and chill. Whole product lines and cottage industries are built on these brands, so that the personalities behind them dare not change.
As important as these values - authenticity and consistent branding - are to us, they did not concern Jesus all that much. He did not conduct his ministry according what suited his tastes or personality. He wasn't worried about being "himself." Instead, he did whatever the Father expected him to do (John 6:38). And he didn't present a consistent brand. For the stiff-necked and self-righteous, he narrowed the requirements for participation in the kingdom. For the bruised reed, he opened them. Such inconsistency hurt his fan base. Some people thought he was self-righteous ("Isn't this the carpenter's son?"); others thought he was licentious ("This man welcomes sinners and eats with them"). He didn't seem to care what they thought.
Rather, Jesus was truly himself because he did the will of God; he was most authentic when he was least concerned with doing things that suited his personality (Luke 22:42). There's an important lesson here for Christian ministry. Our ministry should not simply flow naturally out of our personality. Our being real can't mean that we only focus on what comes naturally to us, our strengths. We are not our own ambassadors. We are Christ's. If God the Father opposes the proud but lifts up the humble and Jesus does, too, then maybe the Christian minister, who is an ambassador for Christ and who bears the image of God, should understand in these examples a rule for ministry: to the lowly we show mercy; to the stiff-necked, we offer rebuke. Perhaps one or the other of those activities will come more naturally to us. It doesn't really matter. It's the world, not Jesus, that calls us to be ourselves.
If we find our authenticity and identity in Christ, we'll have to be prepared to stop judging our effectiveness by how people respond to us. We'll no doubt be misunderstood by some. But we won't, as some people fear, be disregarded or discredited for speaking or acting in each given situation according to the need. That doesn't make us hypocrites. In fact, people are more likely to question your motives if you're always affirming, always in-your-face, always cool and groovy.
A dear friend of mine from college exemplifies what I'm trying to capture here. He was the only man I've ever met who has literally wept with me as I confessed a sin, doubt, or concern. He's also the only man that's ever taken me by the shoulders and told me (in a different circumstance) to get my act together. He wasn't terribly concerned about the consistency of his behavior from one situation to the next; he wasn't concerned about my feelings, really. He knew what I needed and gave it to me. He's the most authentic person I know.
It's hard to know how to develop my ministry skills if I'm to be less concerned with consistency and authenticity and more concerned with serving out of my identity as an imago Christi. I'll keep reading Nouwen's books like they're going out of style, because I think he understood Christian service better than most. But I'll have to remember not to be conformed into the imago Nouwen (or the imago Mohler, imago Calvin, or imago McLaren). But, to be quite honest, it frightens me to be the disciple of a Prince of Peace who said, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!"