A major point of my sermon yesterday was to follow Hannah’s example of being so devoted to God that other people might think we are crazy. While this point might sound uncomfortable, I think Christianity in the 21st century could use a dose of “strangeness.” Tragically, Christians often behave no differently that how our world operates.
One of my favorite books I read in seminary was A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp. The title is based off 1 Peter 2:9 (“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people…”). This book taught me the importance of always seeking to be peculiar in how I live my faith, as well as encouraging congregations to do the same. Following Jesus always looks strange compared to the surrounding culture. Here’s how the book opens, giving an illustration on how we often treat Christianity like a cruise ship chaplain:
Priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen tells a significant story about what it means to be a Christian amid the late twentieth-century ruins of Christendom. Years ago, Nouwen was chaplain of a Holland-American cruise line. He stood one day on the bridge of a Dutch ship making its was though a thick fog into the port of Rotterdam. “The fog was so thick, in fact, that the steersman could not even see the bow of the ship. The captain, carefully listening to a radar station operator who was explaining his position between the other ships, walked nervously up and down the bridge.”
In the process of his nervous pacing, the captain collided with the ship’s chaplain. Adrift in anxiety as well as fog, the captain cursed the chaplain and told him to stay out of the way. “But,” says Nouwen, “When I was ready to run away, filled with feelings for incompetence and guilt, he came back and said: ‘Why don’t you just stay around. This might be the only time I need you.’”
Musing, Nouwen elaborates on how the experience is all too typical of ministerial—and, I would add, lay Christians—frustrations, on or off an ocean liner.
There was a time, not too long ago, when [Christians] felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are stranding in the way. That is our lonely position. We are powerless, on the side, not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.
So here stands the Christian, chaplain on the ship with a destination sure and true, even if the surrounding fog sometimes gets pretty dense. The captain, the real mover and shaker in our world, wants the Christian out of the way. Let him, let her, goof off with the deckhands. Let the Christian divert and console these and other inconsequential people. And maybe, in a tight spot, let the Christian launch some prayers or perform some other hocus-pocus which at least will have the effect of calming and keeping the masses under control. But for crying out loud, keep the Christian off the bridge, out of the map room, away from the wheel. And when the ship has docked, don’t let the religious fanatic in the corporate boardroom or the congressional chamber. There’s work to be done in the real world.
I think this metaphor is very revealing. Many times we grow accustomed to our surroundings, mirroring the sinfulness we see in the world. Following God takes the backseat, in exchange for other things like popularity, social connections, Facebook, money, politics, and so forth. Christianity is about as useful as a cruise ship chaplain… Surely other things are more important in life than all this God-stuff!
Instead of following the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel for our sermon and dedicating children to the Lord, we frequently dedicate children to ourselves, our family reputation, worldly success, or a sports league. We forget that the best thing a Christian parent could ever share with a child is the love of Jesus. Everything else ought to be secondary, but we mess up the order.
Instead of genuinely asking ourselves what would Jesus do in a situation, we follow our gut reactions, cussing out the person who insults us, hitting back harder if we are attacked, and responding with negativity when others are pessimistic about the world around us. We end up no better than non-Christians.
Instead of pursuing Christlike values such as self-sacrifice, love, and generosity, we tend to promote ourselves, put others down, and hoard resources. Jesus clearly calls us to be strange in our dealings, always following in his footsteps. Yet sometimes we assume Jesus shouldn’t be taken too seriously, or that Jesus was just speaking figuratively.
If you ask me, I think we all could use a dose of peculiarity. Perhaps if other people start to think that we are crazy, maybe that’s the best evidence to show we are actually following Jesus.