Mediocrity, Misanthropes, Miscreants, & Muddleheadness

by Michael Usey

When I was in college and seminary, I confess with some shame that I was fascinated by those people who make speeches for a living, the professionals, the ones who speak at conventions, banquets, and motivation seminars. We always called them hired gums.  After I got married to Ann, that desire went away completely, especially after I had kids. 

Originally, I was envious when I read about the hired gums. Not because of the exorbitant fees that they charged (okay, well that too), but because they give one speech over and over again. Preachers can’t get away with that, not often anyway. We have to pony up new sermons every week to preach to the same audience. I’m sure there are some liabilities to being a professional speaker. Every profession has its downside, the grunge work one has to do. But, from a preacher’s point of view, it looks like a pretty soft job.

When my envying began in the 80s, one of the superstars in that pro speaker circuit was a man named Charles Garfield. He’s a psychologist from San Francisco. He made up to 150 speeches a year, but actually, if the truth be told, he made one speech 150 times.

He began his career as a mathematician for NASA. He was part of the Apollo Project that put a man on the moon. He left NASA to study psychology. He got interested in what motivates people to reach their highest possible achievement in this life. He went to Berkeley and got a PhD in psychology. Then he interviewed 1,500 people on how they achieved what he called peak performance.  He published that result in a book, and then he started on the lecture circuit.

I read the speech he gave on peak performance. He said the one thing that all peak performers have in common is a sense of mission. That got my attention, because that is a church word, mission. What happened was that we got careless with church words, like “mission,” “calling,” and “grace.” We don’t use them very much; we just leave them lying around, like leaving tools on the front yard. Someone comes by and picks one up, and one day we hear our word being used out in the world, some motivational speaker saying, What you need in this life if you want to have fulfillment is a sense of mission. Well, that is exactly our message. Garfield then tries to define mission. It is bigger than goal setting, bigger than a sense of self-fulfillment. It’s giving yourself to something that is greater than yourself. That is what a mission is. That is what brings about peak performance in an individual’s life, or even in a corporation’s life: having a sense of purpose in your life.

The rest of his speech is a series of stories that motivational speakers use. They are separated into categories. He uses a toll booth story. That is the story about somebody who has to live or work in a tiny, confining space, but he escapes it because he has a vision of a greater vista.

He offers a sports story. You always have to tell a sports story. Roger Bannister, the guy who broke the four minute mile in 1954, is the one that Garfield tells. Until that time, the four minute mile seemed to be an impenetrable barrier, a physical possibility. But he did it. And after he did it, everybody did it. Even high school runners now break four minute miles, proving that barriers are in large part psychological, not just physical.

Then he throws in a healing story, about somebody who is facing a life-threatening illness, but overcomes it because they have to do something. There is one more thing they have to do. They have a purpose, a mission in life. It is therapeutic to have a mission that will give you the kind of strength in your body to bring you to healing.

The conclusion is always the male weeper story. That’s a story that is so moving and emotional, it will make men cry. Back then we used the sexist phrase, the male weeper, and you always want to end your speech with a male weeper story.

That’s the motivational speech. This is the formula it follows. But what fascinated me was his core content. Peak performance comes from a sense of mission in your life. Mission belongs to the Church. Mission explains the Church. The Church is founded to perform a mission. There is no other reason for the Church to exist, except to perform the mission that was given to it. The Church did not make up its mission. We don’t sit around and wonder what our mission is. It was given to us.

That mission is found at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days following the Resurrection. On the fortieth day he gathered the disciples together on a mountain, and said, “Now go and be disciples in all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you; and remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

If you notice, I’ve changed the usual English translation from Go and make disciples of all nations to one that I think is closer to the Greek word mathatheo, Go and be disciples to all nations. The verb make has the unpleasant connotation of the forced conversions that took place in abuses by missionaries.  I think my translation frees a truer sense of what Jesus commands of us, and is a better mission philosophy: Go everywhere and live the life I’ve taught you, and they’ll know you are Christians by your love.

That is our mission. That is why we are here. We are here in the business of being Christians, providing the evidence with our lives that the Christian life is the way to live in this world.

After people hear Charles Garfield speak, you know what they do in these seminars? They break into little focus groups, breakout groups. They all sit around with butcher paper, and write down what they think the mission of their organization is.  Churches love to have snappy mission statements.  At CP we have our taglines too: where loving God means loving people, or where we try to follow Jesus without embarrassing him.  Cute, but it’s not really necessary.  Jesus gives us our mission right here.

So we don’t have to do that in the Church. We don’t have to figure it out. We have been given a mission. It has already been given to us by our Lord. That mission explains the Church. That mission is greater than the Church. It is greater than any dream this world has ever had. It is transforming this world to be the kind of place God intended it to be. That is our mission. And it is given to us, ordinary folk. In fact, ordinary, sinful folk. Once in a while somebody feels compelled to point that out to me. They say that they stay away from church because the Church is filled with hypocrites. I say, well that’s just the half of it. You ought to see the other half.  People trying to say something hurtful to me, have said, “You’re not a good person.”  I respond, “Boy, you got that right; only God is good.”

The Church has a checkered history. There is no point in defending it. In fact, you don’t need to defend it. The Church is a fallible institution. This Matthew passage has been misused to demonize cultures under guise of Christian mission.  It’s been abused to mask colonialism.  If you’ve seen the excellent movie The Mission, this fact becomes completely clear.  James Blay was telling me this week about chapels and church buildings in Liberia that depict a white Jesus (historically inaccurate) used to imply that to be good you had to be white, among a population completely black.  If you were a baptist in the South during the 70s & 80s, you repeatedly heard the terrible unintentionally sexual phrase Bold Mission Thrust so often, you were sure you could hear Sigmund Freud cackle somewhere every time someone seriously said it.

But I say, our failures are no reason to neglect our mission. That is a reason to marvel at it. It has survived 2,000 years of mediocrity, misanthropes, miscreants and muddleheadness. And it is still around. If I were an investor, and I found a company that was still around after 2,000 years of bad management, I would buy into it. I’d conclude that they must have something there that they aren’t aware of, some secret that they are hiding. And we do. That secret is the genuine mission that has been given to us by our Lord, a mission that’s greater than any one of us.

Back in the 3rd century, a man named Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, in North Africa. He wrote a little book on patience for his churches. The occasion was an attack of the plague in Carthage. Everyone in that city who was able, left the city, except the poor, the old, and the sick. They had to stay. Cyprian, in this book, appealed to the Christians to stay in the city, not to leave, even though it was in their power to leave. He asked them to stay and care for the sick, bury the dead, and give hope to those who had not yet been infected by the plague. (If he had written today, he’d be imploring us to stay home.)

The amazing thing about this is that the Christians had just undergone persecution in Carthage, because they would not worship the Emperor, or the culture’s gods. They gave their loyalty to Christ alone. So, they have been persecuted. But they stayed in the city  because they had a mission to perform there. Christ had called them to transform the city. They stayed there to do it. It is an amazing story, very relevant to us now.

D. T. Niles, the great missionary, said, “The Church exists for mission as a candle exists for burning.” That is to say, there is only one reason for our being here, only one reason for our existence, and that is to be on mission.

Toyohiko Kagawa, one of my all-time top heroes, was a Japanese Christian pacifist, Christian reformer, and labour activist. The product of missionaries, Kagawa-san wrote, spoke, and worked at length on ways to employ Christian principles in the ordering of society. His vocation to help the poor led him to live among them.  Before he died in 1960, he said that people will no longer believe the words of Christians without our actions; first, people must see our deeds, and only then might they hear our message. 

That’s it. The nature of the Church is mission. That is why we are here. And when we are on mission, we are strong and healthy. And when we are not, we are weak and irrelevant.

Not only does the Church have a mission to perform in this world, but everybody in the Church is supposed to have a part in performing that mission. That is why Paul tells the Corinthians that he sees the Church as being made up of people with a variety of gifts, and each person is supposed to find some way to offer their unique gift for the mission of the Church. He says, there are no exceptions. Everybody is to offer something. Listen to Paul:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given [with no exceptions] the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 

When you joined the church, you said that you would support the mission of the church with your gifts, with your talent, so that the mission of the Church would become a reality in this world. Too many of us thought that God’s mission, God’s work, was done someplace else. Just by definition, the Great Commission of ministering to all nations, being disciples to all nations, meant other nations someplace else. Christians went faithfully over there to carry out a mission. That isn’t quite accurate. Christians sent somebody else over there to carry out that mission. Those other people are called missionaries. Many of them did marvelous work. One of the great chapters in church history is the missionary movement.

As I mentioned, there is darkness in too many missionary stories too, as well as light.  The destruction of the Hawai’ian culture, for example, is a well-known evil chapter in so-called mission work. However, much good has been done too by missionaries. American Baptist missionaries (and those of the CBF) are trained to be totally non-imperialist, in that they spend their first years learning the language and culture before even beginning their ministry.  Isn’t that beautiful? They followed the lead of people like Kagawa-san, and they go and live as Christians in another place and culture, to be disciples in a new setting. Our own Ralph & Tammy Stocks, and Charlie Wilson are excellent examples of what I’m talking about.  They get it.  They exemplify being a disciple, letting their actions precede their words.  I commend their experiences to each of you.

But there is just as great a story to be written here. And it will be written here when the progressive church in America realizes that God is calling us to perform a mission right here. No telling what will happen if the church in America got a sense of mission.

Having a mission bigger than you are is the secret, according to Charles Garfield, of peak performance, getting the most out of your life. Jesus put it this way, “Seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be given unto you.” What that means is that if you have given yourself to a mission that is greater than yourself, then everything else in your life falls into place.

In prisons, even in some hospitals, especially those with severe mental illnesses people, they let them raise pets. They give them animals to care for because it works better than anything else to bring about healing in their lives. The theory is so simple. The animal becomes the object of their caring. They give themselves to something outside of themselves. If you give yourself to something outside of yourself, you get outside of yourself and you start to feel better about yourself.

We have at CP several people whose ministry it is to care for animals, particularly dogs, and particularly those who are neglected, abused, and damaged.  Alison, Wendy, Deb, and many others are doing God’s work in caring for our fellow creatures, and there is nothing like canine love to help us understand God’s love for us.  I am extremely proud that so many of our church members are involved in this type of ministry. So please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.

It is safer to love a dog rather than to love your neighbor. A dog will appreciate it. A dog will return your attention and give you affection too. Dogs will love you for doing this. So if you are severely wounded by life, start there. Love a pet. But if you’re a healthy, strong, mature adult, then it is also time for you to add something larger, like loving your neighbor, who is hurting, or who is in need, or who is lonely.

You do that too, and you will discover all kinds of things, good things, will be given to you. Not wealth or fame. If you want those, then you are in the wrong place; the world can teach you how to get those things. But Jesus is waiting to teach you how to get what those things cannot give you. “I do not give to you as the world gives,” he said in John’s gospel. What he gives is a sense of wholeness in your life, which is the root word for health. What he gives is a sense of harmony in all things. Shalom is what the Bible calls it. The peace that means you are one with God, you are one with yourself, at home with yourself, and you are at home with your neighbor.

Christopher Parkening is a concert guitarist. At age 30, he was at the top of his profession. His concert schedule booked years in advance. His CDs were best sellers. And then it all stopped. For three years he just disappeared. He stopped recording. He stopped performing. He said he was burned out. He did what all of us have been tempted to do from time to time in our life. He just chucked it all and went away. He had resources sufficient enough to buy a little ranch up in Montana with a trout stream running through it. He was an expert fly fisherman. He saw himself now solving the problems in his life by fishing. He hoped to find what was missing in his life.

He did, only in a way that was unexpected. In Montana it’s nice from May to October. You can fish. But the rest of the time, the other six months, it is a different world up there. You have to stay inside, or you will die. So that is what he did. He read books, and he read the bible. One day a neighbor asked him to go to church. The minister on that Sunday preached a sermon on the Christian life, the ways that we find to avoid living it. Parkening said, “That’s me!” From that point on, he began to see things differently. He doesn’t use the term, born again. He said he doesn’t like it. What he said was that he had a renewal of his faith. The effect on him of the renewal of his faith is the effect it has on everybody. He got his sense of mission in his life.

He went back to playing the guitar. He is a different man now. He said he was burned out because there was only one purpose in his life, being famous. “Now,” he said, “my music has a purpose. Now I can give voice to what I believe in my music.” He has a mission in life now.

There may be some of you reading or listening who are like Christopher Parkening. You’ve enjoyed success in this life, but now you find your life is flat and unrewarding, you need to find a mission for your life.

But others of you may be like Ella Rigley. Parkening was young and is uncommonly gifted. Ella Rigley was old, and like most of us she had common talents. When she was in her 70s, her husband died. She was left alone, and didn’t know what to do. She heard about VISTA, a volunteer program serving communities in America. She inquired about it. They took her, sent her to South Carolina, where she started a preschool. Then they sent her to Oregon, where she worked with migrant workers.

After three years, she retired from VISTA. But she kept right on going. She lived in San Francisco. She created little mini-parks around the city, little gardens, where children could find a safe place to play. On her 80th birthday she got two presents: 10 tons of dirt and a huge bag of worms. That is what she wanted so she could build another mini-park. She felt good. She felt young. She felt happy. She said, “VISTA turned my life around, because there you see needs so great that you forget yourself.

“Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be given to you.” You can do that anywhere, but we have organized our church so you can do it right here. You’ve got a mission. It’s waiting for you.