Archive for September 2014

Want Community? Be A Friend

Most of us are yearning for a deeper level of connection with others. We want to be part of a people, a movement, a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Quite simply, we want friends. Most of us have all the co-workers, contacts and acquaintances we’ll ever need, but simple, old-fashioned friendship is in short supply.

Take my relationship with the check-out clerk at the grocery store, for example. I wouldn’t say we’re friends. Our relationship is purely transactional. I need food, she needs me to pay for the food. Once these conditions are met, our relationship has reached its logical conclusion. I can walk out of the grocery store and never come back; it won’t have much impact on either of us. We don’t owe each other anything.

Friendship is different. As friends we come together for reasons that transcend any particular objective. We may play games, but we are not a gaming club. We may go into business together, but the success or failure of the business is not the ultimate basis of our relationship. We are friends because we care about one another at basic human level. I care for my friends as people, not merely as a means to an end. I am a friend, not because I produce any particular product or outcome, but because my love, life and identity are tied up with those around me.

For the millions who are yearning for community, this is where we must start. Authentic community is nothing more and nothing less than a rich network of friendships. Together, we become more than than we ever could be alone. Through friendship, networks of individuals, families, tribes, and even larger groupings can find unity in a common sense of identity and purpose that goes far beyond short-term, individual self-interest.

Friendship is magical in the way it breaks down the ordinary distinctions that separate us. Paul points to this when he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Community is friendship writ large, a set of relationships in which we remain ourselves, yet have become so much more than atomized individuals. We experience the bonds of true community when we love others as ourselves, and we discover that the other is no longer other, because they love us that way, too.

As beautiful as this vision is, it can be hard to wrap our minds around. In the ordinary world where most of us live, relationships are rarely this harmonious. We all have our own personal motivations and objectives, and when mine come into conflict with yours, watch out! Yet, genuine community can handle this kind of conflict. In fact, creative tensions and disagreements have the potential to deepen and strengthen community. Authentic friendship embraces conflict, transforming it into an acknowledged creative tension that moves us forward together.

We should rejoice when we experience disagreement in our friendships and communities. Not only is conflict inevitable, it is the basis for all real creativity! When we are willing to openly engage with our disputes in ways that honor one another while still disagreeing, we can become something new together. Loving engagement through conflict helps us see beyond our limited, individual perspectives. We begin to discover who we are together, as a circle of friends.

These times of open conflict can be daunting, but our stress can be greatly reduced when we keep our shared purpose in mind. Amazing depths of power await us when we remember that our mission is to serve rather than be served. We join together to create something beautiful for others, rather than to satisfy our own selfish desires or make ourselves more comfortable. As Charles Eisenstein puts it, “Joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity, and gifts, create intimacy.” True community exists whenever we choose to look beyond our present hang-ups and explore the amazing challenges God is calling us to.

It’s time to develop the kind of selfless love that makes deep, authentic life together possible. We need bonds of loyalty that go beyond quid pro quo transactions, instead seeking to bless others. This kind of friendship breaks down the you/me, us/them distinctions that keep us separate and isolated from one another. It embraces healthy conflict as a path to unity. Rather than passively consuming together, we engage in shared creativity that makes the world a more beautiful place.

We cannot embrace these kinds of relationships and remain unchanged. When we become true friends, our lives are going to be disrupted, shifted, deepened in unpredictable ways. Being community makes us dependent on each other. Perhaps the biggest reason that so many of us have avoided this kind of connection so far is that real friendship takes us out of the driver’s seat. We don’t get to control where we’re going. Community is a collaborative adventure that leads us down startling, unforseen paths. This is the kind of friendship that Jesus invites us into, a way of living where we truly become one with each other, but at the cost of our own illusions of independence and control.

How does it make you feel to think about the unity and surrender that true friendship can bring? Excited? Nervous? Curious? What kinds of changes do you sense might be required of you to become a friend to those around you? Are there areas in your life that will need to change in order for you to be faithful?

The Results Are In!

We got an excellent response to the survey we sent out last week, with more than 90 responses from across the US and beyond. The information from this survey is helping me better understand who who you are, and how we might move The Lamb’s War forward in the coming months. So, first of all, thank you to everyone who took a few minutes to answer the survey. It means a lot to me.

Now that the data is in, I am beginning to make sense of what you’ve all said. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share with you a little bit of what I’ve learned, and then lay out what I’m thinking at this point. I strongly invite your comments and contributions at this point, because no one can help me understand who The Lamb’s War community is better than you!

By the Numbers

First of all, I’m going to walk you through some of the raw data, to let you see what I’m seeing. Once we’ve reviewed that that, I’ll share my reflections on what impact this information might have on the future of The Lamb’s War. (PS: If you don’t want to wade into the statistics, just skip down to What Does This All Mean? We won’t judge you!)

Age

My readers are roughly evenly split between men (51%) and women (45%), with a couple of folks identifying as genderqueer. There is solid representation across the age range, double digits for each decade between 18-75. However, no one under 18 responded, and we have only two folks over 75. Overall, the readership of The Lamb’s War is on the older side. About 60% of respondents were over the age of 45, compared with roughly 40% under 45. Breaking it down by generations, we’re approximately 29% Millennial, 27% Gen X, and 40% Boomer.

Location

In terms of geography, the lion’s share of us come from the Northeast (33%) and Midwest (24%) of the United States. Outside of these areas, there is significant representation from the US South (7%), and the US Great Plains, Intermountain, and West Coast each represent 5% of respondents. There is some international readership of The Lamb’s War, including 5% from the UK and 3% from Canada. We also had responses from individuals in the following nations: Ecuador, Belize, Ghana, Germany, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Education

The Lamb’s War has an exceedingly well-educated readership. 82% of respondents have at least a college degree, and when you take into consideration the fact that most people who said some college are probably still in college, we’re looking at a 93% rate of university education among our readers. This should come as no surprise, given the demographics of the North American Quaker community, but it still stuck out to me as remarkable.

Religious Affiliation

My question on religious identity proved to be one of the most interesting, and at times quite complex. Many individuals chose several different religious affliations for themselves, sometimes ones that I would have assumed were mutually exclusive! To oversimplify somewhat for the sake of reporting, I found that: 73% of our readers are some variety of Quaker Christians. The second largest group is Quakers who are non-Christian, not exclusively Christian, or spiritually seeking – about 13%. 10% of readers are non-Quaker Protestants, and we got responses from individuals identifying (solely) as: Anabaptist-Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and Atheist.

Yearly Meeting

When asked about Yearly Meeting participation, the largest single category was those who did not have one (29%). Those who do have a Yearly Meeting affliation, however, represent a total of 24 Yearly Meetings, including 9% from Philadelphia YM, 5% from Ohio YM, and 4% from Britain and New England YMs.

Finding The Lamb’s War

I also asked people about how they came across The Lamb’s War originally. About one third said that it was through a personal connection with me, and 20% said it was through the blogging portal QuakerQuaker.org. Personal recommendation and surfing the internet came in at 14% each. A smaller number of us became aware of The Lamb’s War through Facebook, other blogging communities, and Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

Preferred Content

When I asked you what types of posts you preferred to read, theological reflection had the strongest response, at 78%. 69% of you said that you liked reading about Quaker themes. Spiritual/Devotional got 64%, while 55% of you wanted Updates from Micah’s Ministry. How-to, ministry praxis got votes from 43% of you, while only about 30% are interested in reading about Social justice witness.

When I asked you what kind of new content would be a good addition to The Lamb’s War, 43% of you said you want to see guest bloggers appear on The Lamb’s War. 24% want to watch video, and the same number would like The Lamb’s War to feature photography. About 21% of folks are eager to hear Lamb’s War podcasts, and 9% say you would like to take part in a webinar or videoconference.

What Does This All Mean?

If you’re still reading after all those statistics, congratulations! But what do all these figures mean? What do your answers augur for the future of The Lamb’s War? A few take-aways:

Your educational level is astonishing. You may know that only roughly a quarter of Americans are college-educated, but nine out of ten of you are. That’s really big. That makes the readers of this blog substantially different from the crowd I might gather if I went out on the corner with a bullhorn. So what does this mean for this site?

While I’ve always suspected that my audience has more formal education than the average bear, I have done my best to make my writing as accessible as possible for people who don’t have a fancypants degree. For me, it’s important that my message be expressed in words that are easy to understand. Knowing that almost all of you can understand those fancypants words, however, should I start using more of them?

I’m sad to see that no one from East Africa responded to my survey. The majority of Quakers worldwide live in Kenya, and I know that I do get readers from East Africa. Nevertheless, they’re clearly not nearly as engaged with this blog as they might be. Are there ways that I can engage with this audience? Is my writing and perspective relevant outside of the developed world? How can I be in conversation with my brothers and sisters in the Global South?

Many of you are unplugged from the apparatus of institutional Quakerism. Now, granted, a fair number of you aren’t Quakers. But still, I was surprised at how many folks did not identify with any Yearly Meeting – including quite a few who indicated a Monthly Meeting. Is The Lamb’s War a haven for discontented, renegade Quakers? I don’t know about that; a lot of very plugged-in folks responded as well. What do you think?

Seriously, Theological Reflection is your favorite category? I remember that when I added that category, I assumed that only a few church geeks were going to express interest in my theological reflection. Surely, I thought, folks are more interested in social justice work or ministry praxis! But here we have it, in black and white: More than three quarters of my readers just love reading theological treatises, while less than a third express interest in social justice witness.

In light of this, is the future of The Lamb’s War to become primarily a theological reflection site? Even if that’s what you want, I don’t think I want to go there. Quakers already have a huge amount of theological reflection going on – and it’s great – but I feel like I’m called to offer something more than that. Yes, we need to reflect, but I want to encourage us to act as well, in practical ways that brings good news to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to the captive and proclaims the jubilee year. I hope others will come with me on that journey. (And OK, OK, I’ll still do some theological posts!)

I think guest bloggers are in our future. Of all the possible new forms of content that I suggested, far and away the most popular selection was guest bloggers. I like this idea, and I think I’m going to pursue it. I suspect that having other voices joining in on The Lamb’s War could be really healthy for our community. I also anticipate that the process of collaborating with other writers will give me encouragement to really nail down what the core vision and purpose of this site is. In the meantime, please let me know if there are individuals whose voice would be a really great fit for this site.

We’re still fishing in a very small pond. Looking at our demographics, I can’t help but noticing that the vast majority of this site’s readership is coming from a Quaker background. We’ve got some lovely folks who are Quaker-curious, perhaps, but this is very much a niche Quaker site, little known beyond the Religious Society of Friends.

And yet. I believe that the message that is being expressed here is one that might be beneficial to audiences beyond our small community. I believe that The Lamb’s War represents a movement among Friends that could prove valuable to the entire Body of Christ. In the months ahead, I would like to explore ways to connect more with readers outside our little circle. Do you have ideas on how I could best do this? I’d welcome your wisdom!

Thanks!

Again, thank you to each of you who took the time to fill out this survey. This has been immensely helpful for me, and I hope it has been interesting for you, as well. Now you know what sort of community you’re a part of here on The Lamb’s War! I hope that we can continue to make this a vibrant platform to help express our shared call to be disciples of the risen Lord Jesus in the here and now, together in his Spirit.

The Ministry of Occupy Wall Street

Full Transcript:

The Occupy movement exposed Wall Street and by extension our entire economic system as one of exploitation, as one that God does not approve of and that God is calling us to change.

The Ministry of Occupy Wall Street

My name is Micah Bales. I live in Washington, DC. I’m a part of Friends of Jesus Fellowship and I was one of the organizers of Occupy DC.

An Apocalyptic Movement

An authentically prophetic spirituality is going to be one that’s apocalyptic. The word apocalyptic, when I say that many people are going to think, “He’s talking about a nuclear war or climate change making the planet uninhabitable or a dramatic cataclysm.” That’s the popular use of the word, but historically and in scripture “apocalypse” comes from the Greek “apocalupsis”, which means unveiling; taking the veil back and seeing what’s actually hidden behind the curtain. It’s like when Dorothy goes to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz and she looks behind the curtain and sees that its just this guy talking into a machine. It’s not actually this powerful, God-like figure.

The early Quaker movement was an apocalyptic movement, a movement that deeply referenced the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic writings and interpreted them in a deeply spiritual sense. When we read about wars and conflicts and tribulations in the book of Revelation and other places in scripture, its not simply talking about the kind of wars that we humans are used to, it’s talking about an inward and spiritual warfare that’s happening between all the ways in which we enslave ourselves and those forces of spiritual darkness, and the power of God to redeem and heal.

An Unveiling

In the Occupy movement I saw an apocalyptic unveiling of – symbolically – New York city, but really of the entire economic system that we live in in this world, and especially in the first world, in the developed world.

This economic system that makes many people very, very rich, but at the cost of the lives of so many, that builds up luxury but deprives people of basic necessities.

The Golden Calf

When the Hebrews were in the desert after they had left Egypt but before they had gotten to the promised land, while Moses was away, the Hebrews got together and took all of their gold jewelry and made it into an image of a golden calf, and they bowed down to the golden calf and they worshiped it.

What was going on here was the Hebrews had just left everything they knew and they were scared and they didn’t know whether they were going to be able to make it out on their own, and so they worshiped a God of wealth and prosperity.

One of the coolest actions that we took part in as a part of Occupy DC and Occupy Church was to take a golden calf – a paper maché golden calf – and we marched it up Capitol Hill to the Capitol Building where congress meets and we delivered it to them.

The Fall of Babylon

In the book of Revelation, the city of Babylon is a code word for the city of Rome, which was the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known, and the empire in which everyone was living. In the Book of Revelation, it talks about the city of Babylon (that is the city of Rome) being on fire and the smoke rising up to heaven.

There’s an image of all of the merchants of the Earth weeping over Babylon and weeping over the profits that would be lost and all the beautiful merchandise that was burning up and all the trade that would no longer happen. Included in that trade – there’s actually a list of all sorts of things that they were trading, and the list ends with, “…and human lives.”

Somehow – and I don’t think this was planned from the beginning – the Occupy movement unlocked a real need that we had, not to list demands, not to say what needs to come next, but instead to say, “Look at this burning city of Babylon. Look at the smoke rising up to heaven. Look at the utter destruction of this city.” And we’re living in it.

This video and transcript was produced by Jon Watts for the QuakerSpeak project. You can view the original posting here.

Put on Your Sweater and Hang on to Your Hat! – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #66

Dear friends,

Here in Washington, DC, the weather is telling us that fall has just about arrived. Before I break out sweaters and jeans, though, let me take a moment to share what’s been going on with me and the Friends of Jesus community in the latter half of this summer.

The last month and a half has been very full in every way: with ministry, work and family. Compared to some other summers in recent memory, my schedule for travel has been relatively tame. Nevertheless, I still managed to make some significant excursions outside the Beltway. In addition to a midsummer visit to Philadelphia to encourage the Friends of Jesus community there, I was able to participate in the Northeast Christ-Centered Friends Gathering at Powell House, a Quaker center in upstate New York. The gathering was truly blessed, and I was humbled to be among so many women and men who are working to share the good news of Jesus among Liberal Quakers in the Northeast United States.

I was also able to make a trip out to Wichita, Kansas, to visit family and friends there. It was a fairly brief visit, but I was glad to be able to connect with a few folks from Great Plains Yearly Meeting, as well as with Jerry Truex, a dear friend who serves as pastor of Mennonite Church of the Servant. I am so impressed with the vital ministry being sustained by my friends in Wichita, and my heart aches to be among them, even as I know that God has called me to settle in the Washington, DC region for the foreseeable future.

This summer has been very typical in some ways, yet in other ways it has been quite strange. I’m used to all my spring routines breaking down each summer, only to be replaced by new patterns in the fall. The difference this time, though, is that I didn’t have to leave home to make it happen. This deconstruction of my ordinary routines has taken place here in situ, amidst the familiar surroundings of home.

To give just one example, my life was delightfully disrupted by a visit by Tyler Heston and Hye Sung Gehring. Tyler and Hye Sung spent six weeks this summer serving as interns with the Friends of Jesus community in Detroit, and by all accounts had a blast. I am so grateful that they are part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, and it was great to spend almost a week with them as they swung out to the East Coast. Tyler will be spending the next year finishing up his undergraduate degree in Memphis, while Hye Sung will be out in Portland spending a year with Quaker Voluntary Service. I’m really excited about the friendship and collaboration in ministry that we are developing with these two very talented and big-hearted young men.

OK, now that I’ve filled you in on summer, I’m ready to put on my hoodie and tell you about what’s on deck for this fall. As the air starts to change, so does our program. The summer was extremely informal for our community here in DC, and we gathered in many different ways – whether grabbing tacos on H Street, cleaning up Shepherd Parkway in Southeast, or gathering for a low-key Bible study. As we move into fall, our plan is a bit less free-form and slightly more methodical, but we hope to maintain a posture of experimentation and freedom in the Spirit of Christ.

We’ve got several ways we’re looking to engage in the coming months. Let’s go from smallest to largest:

On the small end, we’re launching several Life Transformation Groups (LTGs). These are groups of 2-3 people who gather each week to confess sin to each other and practice intercessory prayer for a few people that members of the group would like to see come to faith in Jesus. During the week, members of the group read a large amount of Scripture, allowing the biblical witness to speak into their lives. We hope that our LTGs will be a practical support for members of our community who want to go deeper in exploring what it means to be disciples of Jesus in the most practical sense, allowing relationships of accountability – to Christ and to one another – to transform our lives.

A slightly larger expression of our community this fall comes in our small groups. Here in DC, we’re expecting a group of roughly half a dozen folks to participate in an 8-week small group experience based on The Tangible Kingdom, a resource produced to help friends come together and discover what it might be like to live as a missional community. Our hope is that this experience might foster a deeper level of commitment and intimacy, together as friends and followers of Jesus. For more information about The Tangible Kingdom, check out the original book, and the TK Primer, which is the resource we’ll be using in our small group (a free sample of the Primer can be downloaded here).

In Maryland, we have a small group that has already begun gathering in Rockville, in the chapel of a retirement community where one of our members lives. By all accounts, it sounds like things are going very well so far. The format of the group is one of interactive Bible exploration, and our Maryland organizers hope that the small group will be a safe, supportive environment for both established Christians as well as those who are just curious about what the Bible has to say and how it might apply to their lives.

In addition to our LTGs and small groups, we are also planning to have a monthly worship gathering that will welcome folks from across the entire DC metro area. For those who are not familiar with our region, travel can be extremely draining and time-consuming, so once-monthly gatherings for the whole metro area seems like the most we can sustain right now as we seek to grow communities in more particular geographical locations. We look forward to these times of corporate worship as opportunities to receive spiritual nourishment from Jesus, and in that communion to connect more deeply with one another as brothers and sisters in him.

Please take a moment right now to pray for us in the following ways:

  • That our LTGs would cohere and become micro-communities where the Holy Spirit can truly do transforming work on each member of our community. That God give us new life and power to change as we become more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus.
  • For the presence of Christ to be felt in our small groups. That he would use each of our small groups to build up core communities in our two present geographical locations, giving us courage and boldness to become fishers of people.
  • That the power of God truly be felt among us in our monthly gatherings for worship, and that geography not hold us back from coming together as one church in the name of Jesus.
  • Finally, please pray that God will bless the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering. Pray for large attendance, powerful teaching, and a palpable awareness of the sweet Spirit who calls us to pick up the cross and become disciples of Jesus.

Thank you for your support – through your prayers, financial giving, and all the ways that you have been instruments of God’s care for this ministry. Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Your friend,

Micah Bales

PS: If you haven’t registered yet for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering, it’s not too late! Check out our promotional flier, register, and leave a comment on our Facebook page if you have any questions!

The Lamb’s War Needs Your Help

And now for something completely different…
Here on The Lamb’s War, I keep it pretty focused. I write about the daily walk of Christian discipleship as I experience it in my own life. I share what I’m seeing and hearing, and I invite you – my readers – into a shared journey of discovery with me.
 
But I’ve been realizing lately, I don’t really know who you are.
For more than seven years, I’ve been blogging without a really clear sense of who my audience is. I’ve made guesses, of course, but I’ve never had much data to back up my assumptions.
 
I need your help.
If you find value in this blog, would you please fill out a reader survey? You can do it right now, either through the embedded form below, or by clicking this link.


Thank you!
 
I appreciate your taking the time to fill this form out. The results from this survey will help me to make The Lamb’s War a better resource for you and others who are growing in discipleship to Jesus. I’m grateful to be walking with you!

Make sure to subscribe to The Lamb’s War to make sure that you catch my follow-up post, where I’ll share the results of this survey!

Who Are The Heroes?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to be a hero. The stories that captivated as a child all featured a leader – or sometimes a whole team of of them – who make bold decisions, take decisive action, and generally drive the plot. These special individuals are portrayed as changing the course of history. Whether ancient heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus or more recent ones like Barak Obama and Steve Jobs, our shared mythology teaches us that history is made by larger-than-life individuals, people who make earth-shattering decisions on a world stage.

Not surprisingly, Christians have turned Jesus into this kind of character, too. In popular mythology, Jesus becomes the greatest hero of all. With all the eyes of the world upon him, Jesus faced down all the rulers and authorities of his day, triumphing over them with his powerful message and the power of his resurrection. Raised to life by God and vindicated in the eyes of those who believe, Jesus sits at the right hand of Power, the ultimate image of heroism.

But is this a full picture of who Jesus is? Is Jesus merely the ultimate hero, the my-dad-is-tougher-than-your-dad comeuppance to Marduk and Zeus? Is Jesus our hero because he is the biggest, the strongest, the best?

That doesn’t fit with my experience of him. When I read about Jesus in the Bible, I do see a person who is facing off against gigantic historical and cultural forces. I see a great man of great moments, in some ways the epitome of our cherished hero archetype. But I also notice what is really important to Jesus. When the powerful men of his day question him, he remains silent. When they demand signs and wonders, he refuses. When he is flattered, he rejects it. If Jesus is a hero, he is not one who is interested in seeming heroic.

Jesus spends his time with the people on the edges – the lepers and tax collectors, women and fishermen. These folks don’t come looking for fancy talk and impressive signs; they are too desperate for that. They know their need of healing, daily bread and concrete justice. Never one to break a bruised reed, Jesus meets these crowds with true compassion and friendship. And miracles do happen.

Our society doesn’t train us to expect a hero like Jesus. While we’re busy watching for a champion who can beat up the bad guys, pitch a no-hitter, or invent a cure for cancer, we may miss the simple acts of heroism that are taking place every day on the margins of our great national drama, with the millions of ordinary people who stand just off stage. This kind of heroism is not for a special elite; it is for anyone who is willing to get their hands dirty in small, daily acts of service to others. This is the type of heroism that we can only participate in by surrendering our desire to be noticed.

I was raised to believe that public recognition and praise was an essential part of being a hero, and maybe it is in our world’s definition of heroism. But when I think about the people whom I have seen demonstrating true valor, most of these individuals have never been recognized by a large circle – sometimes, not even by those whom they are serving.

I remember when I was in middle school, there was an amazing woman named Dorothy, probably in her seventies or eighties at the time, who tutored me in algebra. I was the worst student ever. I would literally fall asleep in her house when I should have been completing my lessons. She just woke me up and told me to get back to work. I had no conception of what disrespect and ingratitude I was communicating through my behavior, much less how much love she was showing me by not kicking me out of her house!

Dorothy was a hero, not in the world’s sense, but in the spirit of Jesus. She wasn’t seeking recognition, or even a big triumph that would boost her self esteem. She simply saw that my family was in need, and she helped out by sharing her time and expertise. She demonstrated the humility and endurance to put up with me week after week, even though I didn’t deserve it. She loved me without expectation of return.

What would my life be like if I truly immersed myself in that kind of love and service to others? What if I compared myself more to the hidden heroes like Dorothy, and so many others who quietly hold our world together?

Off the Treadmill, Onto the Cross

Do you ever get to the end of the day and felt guilty because you haven’t gotten enough done? Maybe you feel that way most days. If so, you’re not alone. Our culture is obsessed with achievement, demonstrated results that can be measured and quantified. From childhood, in the grades we receive from our teachers in elementary school, we learn to measure our lives by the flat metrics of percentiles, performance reviews, and finished projects. Every completed task deserves another.

Guided by the ideals of efficiency, growth and productivity, we are encouraged to push ourselves to ever greater levels of accomplishment. We feel that we should more this week than we did last week. No matter how much we got done yesterday, today is an opportunity for more and better. Many of us have so internalized the relentless drumbeat of progress that we no longer need teachers or bosses to push us past our healthy limits. Our own deep-seated anxiety – dread of not measuring up, failing to justify our existence – is enough to keep most of us on the treadmill.

For those who seek to follow Jesus, however, there is an alternative. Just like each of us today, Jesus also had a success script that he was expected to follow. Everyone around him looked to him as a triumphant savior like David, a heroic warrior-king who would prove himself with mighty deeds and establish his kingdom through an overwhelming show of force. To the utter shock and confusion of even his closest friends, Jesus took a different path. In defiance of success culture, Jesus laid down all hope of worldly recognition in order to embrace a deeper kind of faithfulness.

It’s easy to forget that Jesus’ life ended in what looked like failure. By the time he was nailed to that cross, everyone around him had either brutalized him, mocked him, or abandoned him. Jesus didn’t just suffer physically; he felt cut off from everything and everyone he loved, even God. He went as low as a person can possibly go, making each of us look like respectable, productive citizens by comparison.

It’s tempting to focus on everything that happened after the agony of the cross: the resurrection, the gathering of the disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the joyous (if often turbulent) proclamation of the gospel throughout the ancient world. Truth be told, I would prefer to think of the cross as a necessary evil that Jesus had to endure in order to accomplish the beauty and power of the resurrection life.

But what if God’s glory is truly revealed in the cross? What if it is in Jesus’ utter poverty, his total lack of accomplishment in any ordinary human sense, that we see God’s face in splendor almost too terrible to behold?

What would it mean for us to measure our lives against Jesus’ apparent failure, rather than our culture’s myth of success? Might we find an invitation to release the many ways in which we seek to justify our own existence? What if following Jesus meant defining ourselves by the love and humility of God, rather than by our own achievement?