Missional Spirituality scholar Charles Ringma wrote in an article recently, “There are losses that fragment and wound us. There are losses that we need to have. And there are the losses that enlighten and transform us. Loss also has its benefits. To be stripped bare may well herald a new way of seeing and being.”
I really resonate with the notion that loss can encompass the good as well as the unbearably difficult. So often when we think about losing something, there is a negative connotation. We don’t like losing, we don’t want to miss out on something, we don’t want to feel the emptiness that inevitably comes with the experience of loss. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture where we are encouraged to focus on gain, winning and success. Loss feels a bit like failure in a culture like that. So we flee away from losing, as far as we possibly can.
Yet again however, here the values of the kingdom of God turn upside down our world’s values.
Jesus placed loss at the center of following him. He said ” ..whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24) and Paul also seemed to revel in loss saying, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Philippians 3:7ff)
Paul says he has suffered the loss of “all things.” Jesus says that losing your life offers us a pass into the kingdom. More that this, loss must also be a part of the daily rhythms of kingdom living once we enter. If we are people of the kingdom of God, we will become accustomed to the frequent experience of loss.
When a leader steps out of a visible, successful and high status ministry position I think he or she can experience loss. It can be a disorienting, emptying and essentially sad experience. Pride, comfort, security and visibility are all lost and that experience can leave a person feeling as though they are living in a vacuum. That is something of what I experienced in moving away from being a leader in a church that was seen as relatively successful. The values of success, spectacle, efficiency and productivity have not only gripped our culture but they are well and truly entrenched in our churches. Leaders embody these values. I embodied those values. It’s something that I had only caught glimpses of when I was moving in the leadership culture, but can discern it a little more carefully now that I am looking from the outside in.
Of course this culture of the spectacle does not only apply to church leaders, nor are all church leaders equal in the practice of these cultural values and narratives. Rather, we all take part in this pool of insecurity. We all swim merrily in the ocean of popularity, success, hyper-productivity and self promotion. We see Christian academics, thought leaders, bloggers all succumbing to the same fear that grips us all, that is, the fear of being ordinary. The biggest sin we can commit today is being ordinary. As a Christian leader I struggle with the tension between ordinariness and productivity, accomplishment and the obsession with making an impact. Does God need to strip us bare of these forces before we can work with him, alongside of him, in humility and joy, growing his kingdom?The biggest sin we can commit today is being ordinary. Click To Tweet
As always there is a refreshing hope with God. God offers us the gift of an alternate vision. A vision that is different from the striving and self promotion of our world. He is the one who comes to give us rest. As the quote above by Ringma says, “To be stripped bare may well herald a new way of seeing and being.”
As Christian leaders, entering into a process of having our pride stripped, our comfort threatened, our security rattled and our visibility compromised, might be the best thing for us as we live and breath in a culture of success and speed, ego and entertainment. To be stripped of these things gives us space, if we are willing, to practice the counter cultural value of “ordinariness” or faithfulness.
Philip Kenneson says in his book Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, “If the Spirit of Christ genuinely animates the church, then it should be bearing the fruit of that Spirit. If some other spirit animates it, then we would expect it to be bearing different fruit. Therefore, one of the critical questions we need to address to the contemporary church is not simply ‘Is it bearing fruit?’ Rather, we need also to ask the more pointed question ‘Is the fruit that the church is bearing the fruit of the Spirit?'”
Is the church bearing the fruit of faithfulness or “ordinariness”? Are leaders comfortable with invisibility, the disciplines of silence, restraint, perseverance and patience? Or do we measure “bearing fruit” by numbers, visibility, popularity and outward signs of success?
Of course we are not comfortable with invisibility, restraint and patience. Our culture screams at us that we need to progress. Christian culture joins in. We must be “sold out” for God. We ought to “expand the kingdom.” We build bigger and better for the sake of our community. We convince ourselves that the more we tweet, post on Facebook and promote our books, the better off our world is because we have something important to contribute. I believe we do each have important things to contribute. But in the midst of this we ought to be practicing restraint and ordinariness, faithfulness rather than seeking notoriety, spectacle, speed and rapid multiplication.
Loss is always an uncomfortable experience, even if ultimately it gives us a wide and bountiful space for the new thing of beauty to emerge that God is doing. It is never comfortable being pruned, poked, prodded, adjusted and transformed into the image of God.
What are some habits of ordinariness that we could practice in a world that craves extra-ordinariness?
Could we show restraint on social media rather than having to post every thought we have, contributing to the white noise around us? I wonder if this would help people to cultivate silence, self- control, trust in God rather than the potential idolization of our leaders and influencers? Could we slow down enough to attempt to seriously hear the voice of God rather than expecting God to bless our already made plans? Could we willingly enter periods of “negative growth” knowing, trusting that God will never leave us or forsake us and he will build his church? Could we renounce success, fame and rapid multiplication and be content with our churches simply evidencing the “ordinary” fruit of the Spirit? Could we let go of our obsession with “making an impact”?
I wonder if experiencing these losses would enlighten us. I wonder if this experience, as God’s Spirit moves lovingly in the vacuum, would create a new space for the flourishing of the church in a world that certainly needs our collective prophetic voice to speak gently and boldly the whispers of another reality.
Holy Spirit do the work you need to do in us that we might be empty yet hopeful vessels for your glory, that God might be magnified through his people – the Church.
—[Photo: Ludo, CC via Flickr]