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Jehovah's Bystanders ~ Jeff Crosno

Although my friends are a blessing, I cannot help noticing that on a good many mornings they seem to struggle to believe in God until they are cradling a cup of coffee in their hands. As for me and my house, let us simply say that when it comes to coffee, I tend to be more of a conscientious objector. On some days, I can be coaxed into joining one of those nervous, twitchy traffic jams of caffeine-challenged worshipers idling at Starbucks. But when I do, the barista fielding our monosyllabic, grunted orders through her headset still seems to double-clutch just a bit interpreting my request for straight-up Royal English breakfast tea. “One day I’ll get it right,” she told me again this morning, but I tried to assure her that no apology would ever be needed. For given what I usually hear and see of her customarily gracious responses to grumpy customers whose pre-dawn vocabularies can be as incoherent as a presidential Twitter feed, I think she deserves my congratulations rather than any criticism. If you ask me, whatever Starbucks is paying her, they should double it immediately and throw in free tuition to the Ivy League judging from the way this young woman is such an unfailingly polite Ambassador from Planet Caffeine sent here to make the lives of earthlings more enjoyable and productive. Therefore, if on some early morning you ever find yourself alone and feeling distant from the Almighty, let me know and I will point you in her direction. In all probability, it is likely that you will once again be able to believe in God. My guess is that you will enjoy the coffee as well.

But I digress. What caught my attention on this particular morning was the conversation that opened up while the barista was waiting on another crew member to boil the water for my tea. She inquired about my weekend plans, and something about the way she asked led to her own explanation regarding some door-to-door calling she was planning to enjoy with her husband for several hours both Friday night and Saturday morning. Suddenly it dawned on me that she was describing a passion for knocking on the front door of total strangers each weekend, in her hope that she would be allowed to introduce them to the religious faith she practices as a Jehovah’s Witness. And with that, the code was broken. In the time it took to boil a cup of water, I had discovered the secret that explained her capacity to endure all of the daily rejections and discourtesies which are visited upon her as she attempts to serve coffee to impatient and testy work commuters. For if you spend your weekends making cold calls on perfect strangers who wish to remain nestled in the security and creature comfort of their suburban cocoons rather than reviewing The Watchtower for news of the Apocalypse and its final Judgment, no amount of crankiness from a few stray Starbucks customers will likely be enough to scare you. And whatever I may think about the theology of a smiling Jehovah’s Witness (and as someone possessing the Spiritual Gift of Immaculate Perception, I do have a few firmly entrenched opinions on just about every subject you might care to imagine), I am perfectly ready to show respect where courtesy is due. She seems as deeply and demonstrably committed to her views on God, salvation, and eschatology as I am. But still, considering the obvious distinction that could be drawn between true believers and those who merely enjoy the comforts of being Sunday morning consumers of religious entertainment, my morning conversation with this pleasant barista at Starbucks poses some challenge. Suddenly, she strikes me as certifiably hard-core while I might at times feel more like something of a poseur. In fact, I'm now remembering how the late comedian Flip Wilson confessed his own internal discomfort on this point with a healthy dose of theological honesty: “Sometimes" he said, "I tend to think of myself as a Jehovah’s Bystander . . . they wanted me to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but I just didn’t want to get that involved!” Giving full credit to Wilson for his perceptive insight, on that basis it seems quite clear that we have met the enemy, and they are us.

Now of course, this just raises one of the better questions that we might care to ask and answer this side of Pentecost and Graduate Sunday: Just how involved do you plan to be in a life of vocation and service to others as a disciple of Jesus Christ? If you were to ask our graduates, I am not always confident that they are hearing much coherence from their elders as they sit through one commencement address or another, each of them offering up the same rehash of tired platitudes that passed through the ears of previous generations without making any discernible impact on the gray matter tucked safely inside. Frankly, most of the messages we attempt to relay to the children and grandchildren that God has entrusted to our care seem deliberately calibrated to impress upon them the absolute importance of making a decent enough living to avoid any kind of personal dependence upon others until ill health and old age finally succeed in prying us from our homes like a band of battered and beaten defenders making a last stand at the Alamo. But honestly, is that really all that we truly know about the Creator’s intention for our lives? Remember, for instance, that at least some of the holiness and beauty of lives that turn out to be both fully human and deeply humane seems to arise from the ways we routinely begin and end our days on this planet requiring loving care and attention from others. Or, remember the Ten Commandments and what they teach us regarding the life-giving necessity of honoring a father and a mother precisely because they will at some point no longer be able to share as productively and capably with the rest of the family as they once did. If you do recall these things, then you will also recognize the inadequacy of all those graduation soliloquies that extol nothing higher than the future cash value of a good career and a well-diversified retirement plan. But dear reader, you are never the one and only person of intrinsic worth that God wishes you to be thinking about. So, if you still insist on staying laser-focused on only your own pampered well-being, then I must also warn you that not even a glorious career with generous stock-options finally turns out to be good enough in the end. For at some point during the ticker-tape retirement parade that so many of us plan for ourselves, we usually end up confronting an existential question of real consequence that sooner or later afflicts everyone who runs out of a job before they have run out of time: If you are what you do, then who are you when you don’t?

Whether or not that question awaits you in the future or leans heavily against your sternum, causing your heart to beat just a little faster whenever you awaken in a quiet house at midnight, I’m betting that you recognize that it’s a real humdinger. Two years ago, David Brooks, the conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, provided us with an encouraging approach to that question in his bracing book, The Road to Character. Tracing the biographies of leaders like Dwight Eisenhower, labor activist Frances Perkins, and the Catholic laywoman Dorothy Day who ministered faithfully among the urban poor across her lifetime, Brooks offered a counter-testimony to confront what he calls “the culture of the Big Me.”  He was suggesting that we invest our lives in other-focused “eulogy virtues” rather than those shiny “résumé virtues” that we typically accumulate in our pursuit of the kind of job-seeking credentials that usually lead us toward the wealth, success, and status that we so desperately desire. As Brooks pointed out, these eulogy virtues like daily faithfulness, practical kindness, gracious forgiveness, and love which is extended actively for the sake and benefit of others turn out to be just the kind of qualities that we always end up talking about whenever we gather for the memorial services of those we admire and respect. And in the introduction to his book, here is how Brooks described such people, those who have learned the art of living into the daily cultivation of these eulogy virtues:

“They are not leading fragmented, scatter-shot lives. . . They are calm, settled, rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people . . . they possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it. They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments. They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. . . These are people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul.”

Now after reading that profile and the kind of “job description” it provides to those who aspire to answer the call of a redeemer God who remains grace-bent on making the right kind of people out of the wrong kind of people, we can perhaps be forgiven for shrinking back at times from the costly pathway it envisions. As one of my friends and former pastoral colleagues puts it, “Inner integrity is neither easy nor will it be accomplished in an instant. . . If one shining moment is all we’re in it for, acting lessons would be cheaper than integrity.” So let me ask you again, how deeply do you plan to commit yourself to a life of authentic vocation and service to others as a disciple of Jesus? Will you sign up for the full treatment, the sanctified life empowered by the Holy Spirit? Or would you prefer to retain all your freedom by learning how to act better than you daily plan to live?

Maybe we can flesh out that kind of ordination to a Pentecost-shaped lifestyle with two quick stories. One of my teachers, Tom Long, told the first story out of his years serving on an advisory group supporting the ministry of the chaplains at Princeton. Each year, the advisory group convened to listen to verbal reports about the work from the university chaplains, offering support and counsel as colleagues committed to the success of our campus ministries. But after listening to the chaplains report one year, Dr. Long said one of the older members of the advisory council asked them, “In your opinion, what are the university students like morally these days?” Well, how are you supposed to answer a question like that?  Finally, one of the chaplains decided to take a stab at offering a response. “Well,” she said, “I think you’d be basically pleased. The students are pretty ambitious in terms of their careers, but that’s not all they are. A lot of them tutor kids after school. Some work in a night shelter and in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Last week a group of students protested apartheid in South Africa . . .“ But as she talked, Long said, the Jewish chaplain who had been listening to her began to grin, and the more she talked, the bigger his grin grew until it finally became completely distracting to his colleague. “Am I saying something funny?” she asked the Jewish chaplain. “No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was just sitting here thinking," he told her.  "You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right. And you are saying that many of them are involved in good social causes, and they are. But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.” “And with that,” Tom Long told us, “we all looked up at the Jewish chaplain.” “No, it’s true,” said the chaplain. “If you do not have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.” “Amen,” I want say. If you don’t have some transcendent vision of what God is doing in the world, it will eventually beat you down. But once you can see what God has done in Jesus Christ, you will never be able to un-see the beauty of the redemption that is now at-large and on the loose all around us.

And finally, there is this story that came to me years ago from a New York Times account of the compassionate ministry of a Dr. Joyce Wilkins, who carried on her medical practice out of the back of a Ford Econoline van. Instead of making a comfortable living as a physician on the upper Eastside, Dr. Wilkins instead spent her days cruising midtown Manhattan on the lookout for prostitutes in need of her free medical attention. The article described how she would initiate friendships with these sex workers, attempting to earn their trust before eventually inviting them to come to see her at the clinic where she could provide them with laboratory tests and medical care dispensed graciously along with words of encouragement and hope. In the newspaper account, the journalist who was interviewing Dr. Wilkins noted that it must be fairly disheartening work, given that at the time, infections like HIV and other acute medical epidemics raging among street prostitutes probably took the lives of many of her patients. “It must be very discouraging,” said the reporter to the doctor. But Dr. Wilkins had an interesting response to that assumption: “Well, that’s one way to look at it, but that’s not the way I look at it,” she said. “My mother taught me to look at it another way,” said the doctor. “My mother was for all of her life a teacher of brain-damaged children, and she taught me when you look at people you don’t look at the damage. You look at the image. You don’t look at the damage; you look at the image of God in them.  And I knew that most forcefully,” Dr. Wilkins told the reporter, “on a Parent's Night when my mother had her class do a performance of My Fair Lady. It just never occurred to my mother not to let a brain-damaged girl in a wheelchair roll across the stage singing, ‘I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night.’” 

Well, I suppose I could also go on all night. Once I get to preaching, I just don’t always know when to quit. Grace is like that, don’t you think? But let me at least give you some choice in the matter. Since I don’t always know how to bring these things to a close, maybe you can just pick up this message about looking for the image of God rather than focusing on the damage. But whatever you do, for the love of God, let’s finally be done with acting as nothing more than mere bystanders. Maybe we could instead be trustworthy witnesses. In fact, that sounds like a great idea to me. Why don’t you adopt as your own a message like this, determine to take it with you no matter where you may be going, and then spend the rest of your life trying to figure out if God has been leading you to this very place just so you can finish making it into someplace special?

Jeff Crosno