Things That Are Not
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (emphasis added)
The past two-and-a-half years have been an interesting study in human interaction. Not long after the announcement that Lisa was being appointed Superintendent of the Rockford District, back in 2013, there was a special session of the Northern Illinois Conference to consider a particular plan through which the Conference would help churches laden with mortgage debt. As a member of the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, I not only attended but was given voting privileges (for the first time! It was very exciting). As I wandered through Elgin First UMC, my name badge on, people would glance my way then do a double-take. Not everyone, of course, but more than a few. When they saw my last name, they would approach me, introduce themselves, shake my hand and invariably say, “You must be Lisa’s husband.” On our way home that afternoon, Lisa and were talking and she said, “It was weird. All these people came up to me and were talking to me.” I chuckled and said, “It’s because of your appointment. Hell, people were sucking up to me because I’m your husband.”
I suppose it’s part of the process of socialization that we learn to approach persons with power or authority, introduce ourselves to them, perhaps only to be known by them, perhaps seeking some favor, perhaps both. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. Lord knows I’ve done it, although I do hope I’m better than I used to be. Who wouldn’t want to be known by those who might well have some kind of influence on our lives? How better to get them to be aware of the people their word and actions might touch?
Still, being on the receiving end of this behavior was distinctly odd, to say the least. It still is. That Lisa is the District Superintendent is true enough. It doesn’t change the person I am. It does, however, change how people perceive me and choose to interact with me (with the exception of the people of Christ The Carpenter UMC; thank God for them and their openness and love and insouciance toward names or titles). I have had to keep reminding myself of this often. I am just me, no big deal. All the same, to some just the fact that I’m married to a person holding a particular office of authority in our denomination makes me a big deal. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around that, at least not all the way.
You see, St. Paul reminds us that none of us are a big deal. As much as we might enjoy parading our advance degrees around – and you can’t be ordained clergy in the UMC without at least an advanced professional degree – and showing off how much Greek and Hebrew we know; as much as we might enjoy being looked upon as particularly special people (having been a clergy spouse in a couple small towns, I will tell you that everyone knows who you are, whether you are aware of it or not); as much as emphasize having been called out from among the rest of the Body (and being a clergy spouse is a calling); for all this, St. Paul reminds us we were called out precisely because we aren’t all that wise. We certainly aren’t all that powerful; besides United Methodists, and probably not a majority of those, who cares about our General Conference, what difference does it make to anyone? We have been called out not because we have special gifts, are oh-so-smart or powerful. I don’t care if you’re a Bishop, the Chair of the General Conference, the head of one of our global Boards, or just a local pastor or deacon in service: you’re where you are because you’re not that big a deal.
So you have a piece of paper that says you read some books and wrote some papers. Do you honestly believe that’s going to get you a free cup of coffee anywhere? Does seminary education really matter all that much? So you stand in front of a congregation every Sunday, lead Bible Studies and classes, and your sanctuary is filled with people and your mission and outreach continues to grow. Do you really think any of that has to do with you? So people in different conferences and in other parts of the denomination know your name, you get mentioned in the United Methodist Reporter or are interviewed on local or even national news. Does that mean you don’t fart after a really good meal? Do any of these things eliminate your need to confess your sins together with other Christians? Does an education or a piece of paper or a special title before your name mean you aren’t in need of the means of grace of the Sacrament to bring you together with the Body of Christ? Does the fact that you might have written a book that a whole lot of people read, perhaps study and share in their local congregations grant you wisdom or courage for the facing of this hour?
As difficult as it is, each of us and all of us need to remember that God has called us not because of who we are or because of some special gift we have; God has called us to serve God, to be builders of the Kingdom, tenders of God’s garden. No one is supposed to see us or hear us. Who we are is inconsequential. All we do, all we are, is for the glory of God. Period. Full stop.
We are just too wed to our special status, whether as baptized Christians in service or ordained as clergy or consecrated as Bishop, to recall that not a bit of it has anything to do with any of us, either individually or as the Church. We are called to be the Body of Christ, not the Body of the educated, the movers and shakers, the special people. St. Paul reminds the people of Corinth they just aren’t that big a deal, which is precisely why God called them. I think we, particularly in the United Methodist Church, not only have forgotten this; we celebrate our special status. People in positions of power and authority seek to remain in positions of power and authority, rather than remember our power comes from weakness, our authority from the Spirit of God, not from some book we read or some title in front of our name. We need to stop regarding ourselves as all that, because we’re not. We are those who were not, created by God to show forth the Glory of God to the world.
That is who and what we are. Nothing before God called us in to being to serve God, God’s Kingdom, and the living of the Gospel.