I never gave away my Legos. I still have all of them. Clothes, miscellaneous action figures, and other random things would be dropped off at Goodwill when it was obvious they’d run their course in my life, but the Legos remain. And when I was leaving for college four years ago, I deconstructed all my sets, put them in separate bags with their corresponding building instruction pamphlets (very organized), and put them all in cardboard boxes and did not just write “Legos” on them with Sharpie. I made sure to write “Nelson’s Legos” so there’d be no mistake: they’re mine.
I heard, “Well, I would die for Jesus,” all the time in high school. It was like the answer to this question that would come up in discussions about martyrs and similar stuff: “Would you burn at the stake for Jesus?” And I suppose that’s a decent question, but quite honestly, I’m not sure what it’s really getting at. It’s probably nothing more than a platform to inflate one’s spiritual self-perception. And besides, it’s easy to die for something. Everybody dies. And anybody can get shot, burned, cut up, bled out, etc. It may be absolute hell for a moment, but before long it’s over. And we venerate these people who have died for Christ and say they are great people of the faith, and my aim is not to belittle that, but rather, to call attention to how those people also did great things with their lives. That’s why we remember them; they didn’t become great because they died. But it’s almost as if you can’t become something until you’re martyred, you know? Even my generation has its own example. Rumor has it that Cassie Bernall from the Columbine shooting was shot because the gunman asked, “Is anyone a Christian,” and she quickly stood up and said, “Yes.” Something to that effect. It doesn’t quite appear that this actually happened, but that’s not important. People believe it did and ran with it, and it became a rallying point for us Christian youths at the time.
Across pulpits in America for the next year or two her name came up all the time as this person we should aspire to be, but at those sermons I never heard it talked about what she did with her life. I suppose I could’ve paid to read the book written about her by her parents, but I didn’t read much at that age. So all I ever heard was how she “took a stand” for Jesus and then died. I’m not talking down at all to what she said and did, even if it didn’t really happen like that. Because even if it did, it’s not that I wouldn’t be impressed. Actually, I’d be moved by such a testimony, and if I’m entirely honest with myself, such a choice takes guts and an audacity I’m not quite sure I have. And I don’t think anyone can really know whether or not they have it until they’re in such a situation themselves.
But dying for Jesus doesn’t always make sense to me. God doesn’t need it from me. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Christ wants me to die to myself so I can live for him. Now it may be that you take a stand for Christ, and in the process you die for taking that stand, but that’s different than just saying, “Well, I would die for Christ,” as if it in and of itself were some badge of moral honor. Again, it’s easy to die for something. It’s entirely another thing—an altogether much more difficult thing—to live for something. To put on Christ is a selflessness that you don’t really see. Living a fleshed-out Christ approach. That sort of thing. Trying your very best to imitate his different-ness. That’s a lifestyle so radical that you’ll probably stick out like some sore thumb and will probably get ridiculed like nothing else . . . including by people in the Church because if there’s a group of people who often bristle at things of this world that are “different,” it’s her.
But this thing about dying for and living for can also be found in relation to other people. That question would always come up in high school, too: “Would you die for somebody?” And everybody would always go, “Yeah, I totally would.” So many people talk about dying for somebody, as if this is what it takes to have a fulfilled life, for people to remember you, for people to say, “Now that was a good man, a good woman.” But imagine you’re the guy who has someone die for him. It’d make you feel real nice. If it saves your life, it would probably unnerve your mind, too, at how your own life hangs by this delicate thread. Everything would seem much more fragile, I suppose. You’d probably view life differently in some respects. But beyond that, life continues. You’re still here, and that person who died for you no longer is. I’m not saying that isn’t a big deal. I mean, your life was saved and preserved after all. But we talk about dying for somebody like it would perpetually do something, but once you’re gone so is your impact. You’re done.
This is exactly why I don’t believe dying for somebody is the ultimate act of love. That is not how you show someone the full extent of your love for them. Christ’s very life testifies to this.
The cross of Christ is not the point. It is not the focus for us on this earth, or at least, it shouldn’t be. It is not the ultimate expression of his love, but so often that very word—ultimate—is used to describe what Christ did at Calvary. But when the apostle John writes about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, he begins by saying, “He now showed them the full extent of his love.” It’s not the calling out of the disciples, it’s not the raisings from the dead, it’s not the feeding of thousands of people at a time, it’s not the numerous healings and miracles, and it’s also not the cross. The ultimate display of Christ’s love in its fullness comes when he does the lowly work of a servant. When Christ—God in the flesh—strips down, denies himself, and expresses sacrificial service in love, he is showing the disciples what truly matters. The trippy thing is that Jesus washes Judas’ feet, too, while being well aware he was about to betray him in the coming days. Is Jesus’ death now not important? Of course not. But judging by the ensuing conversation between Peter and the other apostles during the feet washing, this event is the biggest thing Jesus wants them to latch onto. It is a microcosm of life and how it is supposed to be lived out.
So perhaps what people need more is for someone to live for them in selfless service, and what we each need to do is put other people before ourselves at all times. Now, that could include dying for them, but ultimately it would mean doing everything you can to make sure you’re there for that person whenever they need you. This is true selflessness, but even it gets downplayed in the Church a lot because very often we let God overshadow too much.
Here’s what I mean. Usually if we start to hammer on how we need to focus on helping others, people start to bristle at that because “well, we need to focus on God all the time,” and give some reason about how man is not the focus, God is, humanism is bad, Christianity is awesome, and then somewhere in there we have mansions, robes, and crowns. But these are just lame excuses to not have to do anything. It starts a domino effect that can eventually convince people that AIDS medication should be withheld because God is punishing people for their sexual sins. Ridiculous. James says that pure, unadulterated religion is putting the orphans and widows first; it’s people-focused. And being Other-focused means that you are living constantly for someone else. Not yourself. Which is what God wants. Which means we’re also living for him. It’s not either/or—it’s both/and. The two congeal. And when we only focus on God all the time we run the risk of ignoring others when we do that. And we get this message that putting others first is wrong, and that somehow social justice isn’t the focus we should have.
Glenn Beck, whom I don’t hate because that’s too strong of a word—but I do disagree with him 99% of the time—said a while back that if the words “social justice” are to be found at your church, you should leave it and find a different place of worship. Why? Because according to Beck, social justice isn’t okay. His reason? It’ll bring about communism. Sure, “social justice” could mean twenty different things, but I fall back on James’ definition of pure religion as a pretty good describer for it. And I can easily picture the brother of Christ confused as to why someone is beginning to bring politics into it. But people are all too eager to jump on the same kind of bandwagon people like Mr. Beck build with their words.
Because we’re looking for an out so we don’t have to do anything. You see, deep down we know that selflessness is the way life is supposed to be lived, but we also know that it requires something of us, and that scares us. It’s frightening. Because we realize that aligning our focus with such a dogma means that we will suddenly have to begin altering our way of thinking, our way of behaving, and ultimately our way of living. And that’s uncomfortable. And we don’t like to be uncomfortable. That’s why we invented those ugly things called sweatpants. So when someone like Glenn Beck comes along and we’re shallow enough to accept his words as truth, people scared of being selfless let out a collective, “Phew.”
A lot of people in the Church freak out when they hear others say social justice—not because they instantly fear the “indoctrination” of “liberal” politics (although that is often true), but because they know it means an end to selfishness. We get this idea that people can’t take away our stuff because it’s ours. Look, we have this presupposition that others are taking something from us, which means that underneath that there is a secondary pre-suppository statement proclaiming we have ownership. In some way X, Y, or Z is ours and no one else’s, so how dare they take that. “This is mine. Don’t you get it? The box of Legos has my name written on it.” Or we apply this to other things—things for which we’ve worked. I didn’t do anything to earn those Legos; most of them were Christmas and birthday gifts through the years. But what about when we’re older? Suddenly, instead of “Hey, those are my Legos,” we’re saying, “How dare they take a chunk of my paycheck.” It makes us upset, and we begin to say stupid things like, “They’re going against what our founding fathers worked for.” Which is laughable because who cares about our founding fathers? Last I checked, we don’t worship a bunch of document drafters wearing white wigs (well . . . some of us don’t). “Yeah, but they started this nation, and . . .” no, no, stop it. What did Christ say? Well, in this case he said pay your taxes. That’s it. But often Christ’s simple statements like that are unsatisfactory to us.
Nothing is ours; we’ve been conditioned to think that it is: “You’ve worked for this, you’ve earned this, now enjoy the fact that you’ve reached this point because you deserve it.” The education system perpetuates this thought process, too: “You work real hard, you earn that better grade, and it is yours.” It can happen to me and my friends when we graduate from college, and it has to me to a large extent (as described in the previous article): if you have a great GPA and don’t get a job right off the bat or do get a job but one that gives you minimum wage compensation, you’re probably going to be pretty upset because why? “You deserve something more than that. You worked so hard to get to this point. A job offer or legitimate career is supposed to happen next—why isn’t it?”
We’re all like this; especially Christians, I think. I think it goes back to the over-glorification of Christ’s death and the downplaying of the significance of him washing feet. I believe over the centuries we’ve created and fostered this sense of entitlement because Christ died for us, so I mean ,everything’s going to be okay now, and I deserve this and that because God loves me and will take care of me, right? And so we begin to think that what we have is ours.
Which is so dumb because not even your own clothes are yours. They probably won’t even be on your body when you they bury you. Sure they might put on a tux for you and some makeup and mold your face into the right shape so you look like you’re alive, but when they bury you the clothes will most likely be gone. If you’re an organ donor, even those will be removed from you; you don’t even own your own organs. Or if you’re cremated? All of the sudden multitudes of images from Genesis and Ecclesiastes are flooding to my mind. Nothing is your own. Even your own physical life. It will be taken from you. Six feet under awaits your body. Is that depressing? It shouldn’t be.
So nothing’s yours. So why hold on to anything? Why not give it away? I went to counseling while in college and was told about a Catholic priest out in California who set up a sort of post-prison work system for juvenile delinquents. He’d give them work, food, etc. And these boys would take advantage of him financially again and again, and the people of this priest’s congregation were embarrassed for him and eventually one Sunday said to him, “What’s the deal? Don’t you see what they’re doing? Don’t you see how stupid they’re making you look, taking advantage of you like that?” And the priest gets up there on Sunday and goes, “You know, I’m not clueless. I’m well aware of what is going on ‘behind my back’ like you say. You say they’re taking advantage of me, but you’re wrong. Nobody takes my advantage away from me. I give my advantage away. I give it away freely.” This is incarnational living. What if we all lived life like that? Freely giving our advantage away to people? I have money. Not a lot. But what if I really, truly believed that it wasn’t mine?
Or let’s say you don’t give that away—why care what condition your stuff is in? Who cares if that homeless guy who smells like month-old B.O. and cigarette smoke and alcohol comes over and sits on your couch and ohgoodgod puts his muddy, filthy shoes on your coffee table? It’s insignificant. Does it matter that his smell will linger in your apartment after he has left? No, it does not. What matters is your response.
It’s probably healthier to live like we own nothing . . . because in reality that’s how it is. In other words, live like Christ did. Live so as to live like Christ; don’t live with the pursuit of getting a chance to die like Christ. Live like him. Meaning, we are homeless. This is not our home. Our bodies are full of organs that aren’t even ours, blood that isn’t even ours. We exist not to receive anything. We exist only to give. We could take a homeless person out to lunch. They’re not hard to find. Roll up to them in our car (which is not ours), and say, “Hey, you wanna go to lunch? It’s on me,” and then take him or her to eat lunch and pay for their meal with money (which is not ours). And afterwards, ask them if they need to go anywhere, run any errands. They probably will because, after all, they don’t have a car. Make ourselves available and give our advantage away to those who do not have such an advantage.
Is any of this easy? Oh, most definitely not. Being radical, or rather, being called to imitate radicals is never an easy thing, but it is necessary because until that happens, any form of change can’t take place around you in the world in which you live. You have to die first, and not in the heroic, egotistical, self-centered sense. You have to die to yourself. You have to give up first. We can go to church and whine about how bad things are, but if we’re not actively working to do our small part to change it, then we are responsible for the way things are, which we don’t like to hear that. We’re America. We’re awesome! No, we’re not. We’re pitiful, next-to-useless, messed-up creatures who are so focused on ourselves that it’s a miracle that someone would come and die for us. But Paul says that Christ saw enough good in us to come down and lay it all out on a silver platter, and so we are now called to do the same. Take what you have been given (you didn’t earn any of it, regardless of what you may otherwise think) and lay it out on a silver platter for others to take. Some may see it happen and wonder why you let people run all over you like that, but you will have an answer ready for them and be able to say, “Look, I want them to take my advantage. It is mine only in the sense that I now have the capacity to freely give it away, and since Christ did just that for me, I can’t not do the same.”
Maybe our selfishness could be excused if we didn’t have any solid example to imitate, but such an excuse can not be made by us, for we have Christ’s example from which to draw. We are without excuse if we do not emulate. Don’t dabble in asinine conditional, open-ended “what ifs” by ho-humming around asking, “What would Jesus do?” Instead, go ahead and ask that which can be answered: “What did Jesus do?” and then do that. The example is there, and the advantage has been laid in our laps. Just look around you. Look at how much health and wealth occupies our environment. To think that we can’t somehow do anything is a lie. “Well, I’m just one person.” Yes, you are. So do what you can. And may God bless you as you go out and do it, and may he lift you up as you become weaker and he becomes stronger, and may he build you up when others trod upon you. For such is the kingdom of God and the mission of his son.