God Works With Outsiders, Not the Lords of the Motorcade
John Boehner, before announcing his departure as speaker of the house, is said to have become uncharacteristically confessional to a Washington Post reporter, when describing his papal encounter. The speaker pointed to the very spot where the papal feet had trod and wondered, out loud, at the magnificent humility of Pope Francis asking for John Boehner’s prayers. “Please pray for me!” Boehner wondered out loud, tearing up, and thus giving a bad name to guys like me, who get emotional from time to time over over real matters of the heart — as opposed to the humble friar shtick of Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires who apparently believes the creepy pomp of papal processions can be softened by his ever-so-humble request for prayers. The joke was on Boehner. Jorge pulls this line on everyone he meets. “Pray for me, I’m the pope. Get it?”
Okay, fine, yes, the Roman church does a few things well. I’m sure Billy Graham does too, and you can’t fault the Mormons for getting relief supplies off to hurricane victims faster than many governments can, but there is only one robe we should press through a crowd to touch — and it isn’t Jorge Bergoglio’s or Rick Warren’s. Celebrity worship, spiritual and secular, isn’t a new thing, but when we see it, we have to call it out for the danger it represents, and we need to remember something startling about the way God works: He works with the truly humble, not the spectacularly humble. Generally, He doesn’t cotton to big crowds, cathedrals, temples and organized religion. In every generation, He works with a remnant, not a legion.
That contradicts our human need for earthly approval. When we buy a life insurance policy, we like to know the company has massive holdings and a corporate name at least a century old. When we pull off the freeway for lunch, let’s face it, most of us trust the national chain over the odd little hamburger stand on the other end of town. When we church shop, there’s a part of us that wants to see a cathedral ceiling vaulting one hundred feet up over the nave.
But, if scripture is any guide, God only works with thin strands of humanity, mere slivers of the whole, and even those are rarely well placed inside the approved tabernacle. When man had become too wicked, He saved humanity with a single family and set wine-bibbing Noah to building an arc, in what must surely have appeared to be a quixotic and lonely venture. When God chose a people to bear His name, he picked one faithful nomad — Abram — and the father of many nations remained childless into his old age. When God saved the little nation of Israel, He worked through a younger son, sold into slavery by his brothers. When Gideon gathered a large army to defend Israel, God cut it down to the 300 most worthy soldiers. When Elijah worried that he was the last faithful man left in Israel, the Lord assured him he had another — what? — seven million soldiers? No, God allowed a mere 7,000 to carry on His banner. When God punished His people, by sending them off to Babylon, He saved a remnant.
As His people are being prepared for the birth of the Messiah, does He give prophetic voice to the best dressed, wealthiest Pharisee in the temple? No. He speaks through a voice crying in the wilderness, a man dressed in camel hair and a leather belt. The Messiah himself was born in a manger, under conditions that would have seemed base and lowly to His neighbors. When Christ preached to thousands, He spoke in riddles, and parables, and only expressed His gospel clearly to those needy few, who pressed in upon the Kingdom.
God works with younger impoverished sons, with 14 year old shepherds, with fishermen and widows and soldiers. He blows down fortress walls with trumpets and slays thousands of Philistines with a single blind man. He seems bent on doing His work, against the odds, and — from the human perspective — with very little chance of success.
You could make the argument, in fact, that throughout history, God is always starting over. He doesn’t lock himself away with professors of theology. He is speaking to farmers wrestling with their plows, and monks wrestling with heresy. He stirs up an evangelist here and a reformer there. He picks the ungainly, and sometimes the unlettered to do His work.
A few days ago someone scolded me for trusting scripture and prayer. He cited his ancient church as his guide. (In this case, the Eastern version, not the Roman version.) He actually wrote, “I trust my 2,000 year old church to tell me what scripture teaches, and not myself.”
You can’t really discuss scripture with these kind of people, so long as their institutional fixation remains primary. If their church contradicts the clear teaching of scripture, they have a global franchise to protect — and to lose — if they disagree with their leaders.
There are, after all, flowing robes and high seats in the temple at stake.