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spiritual life

You’re Still Not Special

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If you remember middle school and even high school at all, you remember wanting to fit in. Being different from about 6th grade to 10th is a terrible curse fraught with repeated attempts to be yourself—whoever that is—while being like everyone else. Most kids don’t want to be special. Yet our culture constantly tells them that they are. The media we aim at our youth (What a loaded metaphor that is!) continually reinforces the message that mere uniqueness is good. But there is no virtue in being different, nor is there anything wrong with being ordinary.

When you first begin, you are the center of the world. Even in impoverished countries, children begin life being cared for and protected from most of life’s vicissitudes. Some, pampered too long or by nature resistant to learning about themselves, never outgrow that infantile sense of entitlement. I find evidence of it still in myself.

Alain de Botton notes that anger comes from frustrated expectations. His solution? Lower your expectations. This is harder than it may appear. I find myself getting angry about the paltriest events. I drop a tool while I’m working. “Damn it!” I exclaim, usually under my breath. Why? I find that I expect perfection of myself. Other people may fail but not me. Others might fumble; their tools might succumb to gravity, but I am better than that. If I drop a tool, it is supposed to remain suspended in air until I grasp it again. Why isn’t the cosmos organized to suit me? What the hell1Hell may well be thought of as a place for people to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” kind of world is this where things obey impersonal rules instead of obeying me?

One would think that my experience of life in this world would have cured me of such foolishness long ago. Yet here I am still cursing when things don’t go my way, still frustrated by a cosmos that refuses to yield to my whims.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal Christian and a hillbilly, I inherited the moral superiority of the one and the recalcitrant independence of the other. Not only am I better than you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you tell me what to think or do. Like the Jews of Jesus day, I had an absolute certainty about my own righteousness and contempt for those who didn’t measure up. I was insufferable. My journey toward freedom and perhaps a little humility has been long and arduous. It took me a long time to realize that God’s acceptance is not based on my goodness but on his mercy. That is why he is able to accept anyone who comes to him without showing favoritism. Yes, he expects us to give up our sin, but the most common sin we all commit is in grading ourselves on a curve while flunking everyone around us. We want special treatment. Our situation deserves special consideration. Yes, we’ve done some bad things, but there were extenuating circumstances. Our parents! Our race! Our class! Our culture! Pity us, O God! It is you who made us as we are! Amazingly, he forgives even such transparent attempts to manipulate his mercy.

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God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life

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When Paul—called Saul at the time—encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him to go into the city and await further instructions. Then he revealed to Ananias that he had chosen Saul to carry his name to the Gentiles. Because of his reputation, the Christians at Jerusalem refused to accept him, fearing that his conversion was a ruse to infiltrate their ranks, so Saul went home to Tarsus where he spent many years not preaching to the Gentiles.

Some will read what I have just written and think that I have flatly contradicted myself. God clearly had a plan for Saul’s life. Bear with me.

Jesus told several parables about a master who leaves and later returns and demands an accounting of the servants he left behind. The early disciples evidently retold these parables in the expectation that Jesus would soon return and call them to account for what they had done after he left. In each of these parables, the master leaves no detailed set of instructions—no plan—for them to follow. He leaves them with a mission. The planning is up to them. For example, in the Parable of the Talents, the master gives each of his servants bags of money, then sets out on a long journey. He doesn’t tell them how to invest it or give them detailed plans about how to put his money to work. He leaves that to their abilities. When he returns, he finds two of the servants have doubled the money he gave them, and he elevates them to positions of greater responsibility. The third servant, however, did nothing with the money entrusted to him. He buried it and returned it to the master after he returned. He tells the master that he was afraid.

What was he afraid of? Did he fear punishment should he fail? Did he fear disappointing the master? The master calls him wicked and lazy, indicating that he regards the servant’s fear as an excuse for him to do as he pleases and not accept responsibility for the work needed to make more money from the money he was given. Because the master sees through the servant’s excuses, he rewards him with the very things the servant had feared: disapprobation and punishment.

None of these servants was given a plan for how to use the master’s money. That was their own part. The master’s part was to provide the money. Theirs was to put it to work. The success or failure of their work would depend on their own ability to make wise investment decisions. Two embraced that responsibility, and their efforts prospered. The third shirked it, and made no effort.

So it is with the life of every believer. God has a mission for your life. That mission always involves taking his name to other people and showing them his love. He may, as he did with Paul, give you a more specific mission, but the planning and work involved in carrying out the mission is your part. Of course, God may also give very specific instructions when a strategic part of his overall plan is especially crucial. He did that when he gave such specific instructions to Ananias about where and when to meet Saul. But for the most part he entrusts us with the mission and leaves the planning to us.

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The Ministry of Entertainment

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Northwestern University here in the Twin Cities operates a Christian radio station, KTIS, which, like all stations nowadays, promotes itself endlessly and shamelessly. I listen occasionally, partly because I am a Christian and these are my people, and partly because I get tired of the unrelentingly secular nature of secular radio stations, where prayer and reliance on God, despite being extremely widespread in the prevailing culture, are treated as oddities. KTIS plays an uneclectic mix of contemporary Christian music by such artists as MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, For King and Country, and Lauren Daigle, sprinkled liberally with short feel-good stories, concert promotions, and station promotions. One of their catchphrases is, “a ministry of Northwestern University.” I got to wondering what that means.

“Ministry” is one of those words you hear frequently in Christian circles but much less often outside those circles. In Britain, what Americans call cabinet-level Departments—Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, et al.—are called Ministries. Monty Python famously introduced a Ministry of Silly Walks to spoof the seriousness of British government agencies and their funding. However, especially among evangelicals, ministry almost always refers to a program of some church or parachurch organization intended to help people somehow. Presumably, therefore, Northwestern University sees KTIS as a means of doing good.

But I see it as little more than Christian entertainment.

When I try to discover what sets it apart from secular radio stations that make no bones about existing to entertain, I have a very hard time. One of their frequent taglines is “uplifting and encouraging,” and I have no doubt that for many listeners this accurately describes what they do. But, then, isn’t that what entertainment does? Helps you forget your troubles, cheers you up, or at least helps you feel that others have it far worse than you? It’s true that secular songs often include references to such morally reprehensible activities as drinking, dancing, and having sex, but it can’t be denied that people do those things because they are fun—at least in some degree—and listeners identify with them.

It might be argued that Christian music lifts up Jesus, something secular music hardly ever does. Indeed, there are songs that exhort the listener to trust God, imitate Jesus, and worship him. But there are also songs that sound an awful lot like spiritual self-help songs, where the hero is not Jesus but the singer, and by extension the listener. Occasionally, the station will play brief clips from listeners who call in to tell how a particular song has had an especially meaningful impact on their lives, but I’ve heard similar claims on secular stations. Artists are popular because their songs connect with people whether they are Christian or not.

Now, I have no objection to Christian entertainment apart from the objection I have to all entertainment: that too much of it distracts us from actually living life in our own bodies, but I do object to the faint air of spiritual superiority that pervades Christian entertainment, the slightly smug condescension with which we Christians tend to view secular music and art, as if to say that ours is superior for what it lacks: drinking, smoking, cussing, sex, drugs, and the less socially acceptable sins. When we call entertainment ministry, we imply that it’s better, that we are better. It’s not. We are not.

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