If there were some kind of device that could track the thoughts in my head and how often they are about me, I would not ever buy that device. It would be embarrassing. The readings would be off the charts. I imagine a bar graph that would look something like this:
Just being honest here. The light blue bar is the time I spend thinking about me and the dark blue is the time I spend thinking about others. The self is king, you see. Things I think about on a daily basis: what to wear (me-centered), what to eat (me centered), where I need to go (me-centered), what I should pray about (lots of me in there), my relationship with God (me-centered), my relationship with others (again, mostly me-centered). Even things that seem like they should be or would be about others are about me in my own head. See how on Sunday, the "me" time goes up, even though that is the day I spend at church, with God, with family. This drives me crazy because I love others and God so much.
Why is it, though, that I so frequently think of others or God as just another way to think about me?
Here's an example:
One Saturday morning, I'm sitting at home reading and the doorbell rings. No one ever rings the doorbell unless they are delivering pizza or trick-or-treating. It's too early for pizza and it's not Halloween. I go to the door to discover a young African-American man standing there in a tie and a jacket. Cornelius is his name. Turns out he is selling magazines for an organization that helps troubled youth raise money for college. He tells me he is from near St. Louis and had a very difficult childhood and an addiction to drugs that started at a heartbreakingly young age. He asks if he can ask me a few questions about life and success. I smile and agree, knowing that he ultimately wants my “success” to lead me to buy some magazines.
He asks me what I believe the most important thing to be as he proceeds and tries to make decisions that will make him successful. Talk about a loaded question. Several things came to mind: character traits (integrity, honesty, perseverance); inter-personal skills (need for a mentor, confidence in relationships, ability to listen); money-related things (be wise, manage well). What I said was very different: “The most important thing is to have Jesus Christ at the center of your life.” Cornelius was thrown off his game for a minute, undoubtedly expecting to hear about integrity, honesty, money management, and the need for a mentor. He told me, suddenly, in a moment of total vulnerability it seemed, how concerned he was that he would actually make it out of his circumstances of his past. He had a criminal record for drug offenses, but wanted more than anything to get beyond this.
We talk for ten minutes about what weighs so heavily on his young shoulders, conscience, heart. He must move on to the next house, though, so he can meet his sales numbers. I write a check for Outdoor Photographer and as I hand it to him, I ask if we can pray together. He says quietly: “I don’t really know how to pray.” I tell him I will do it. I reach out my hands and he puts his in mine. (We are still standing at the door and now we’re holding hands.) I pray words that I don’t recognize for Cornelius and when done, I release his hands. He looks at me with wide eyes. His lips are parted slightly and he begins to back away from my house in stunned silence. As he does, he says: “No one has ever prayed for me.” He walked backwards halfway to my neighbor’s house before finally turning around. For months, I have wondered about why Cornelius came to my door that day. What did his appearance there mean for MY life, for ME?
Here's another one:
I am on a plane. The flight will be 16 hours. A man who is the size of an offensive lineman for the Bears sits next to me . . . in the middle seat. He barely fits, parts of him occupying some of my seat space. And, he has not a thing with him – not a book, not a magazine, no headphones, no I-pod, no Kindle, no Ambien, nothing. Meanwhile, I have a backpack that is stuffed with more things than I could ever use even on a 16-hour flight. My Kindle has 10 books loaded on it and ready to be read. I have two Bibles. I have my I-pad for movies. Cards, snacks, 5 magazines, TV shows, I-Touch, gum, neck pillow, eye shades, glasses, pictures of people I love. You get it.
I’m looking at this guy and wondering if perhaps he is a terrorist. If you were going to blow up the plane, there is no need for anything to do aboard. He didn’t quite fit my (racist, stereotyped) vision of a terrorist, though. He notices I’m studying him. “How long is this flight?” he asks. Now, I’m really getting concerned. No one gets on a 16-hour flight and doesn’t know how long it is or hasn’t talked to all their friends, and even some strangers, about how difficult such a long flight is. “It’s sixteen hours,” I say. “Wow. That’s a long way,” he seems truly amazed that he has found himself in his seat. “Yeah,” I say, “what are you going to South Africa for?” Can’t help myself. Before we take off, I am tasked with getting to the bottom of this guy’s story. “Hunting,” he says. Slight judgment in my human heart now enters the fold. Great, I’m sitting next to an elephant poacher. “What about you?” he’s looking at me with curiosity. I hadn’t really practiced my “elevator speech” about this trip, so I gave him an inartful description about going with a group from my church to teach pastors in Zambia.
“Church,” he says with slight disdain. “I’ve never really been a church guy. My ex-wife and I went to a Lutheran church. My girlfriend and I went to a Presbyterian church for a while. I’m just not . . . well, I just can’t keep the Ten Commandments. So . . .”
I feel like God has just pitched a fat softball across the plate. And if I miss it, I will be devastated. I turn in my seat to face the Hunter and say: “Really? Neither can I!” He looks puzzled. “No one can! That’s why Jesus came. He is the only one who could keep them.”
“What do you mean?” he asks, now turning his body slightly toward me. I went on to explain the sacrifice Christ made, why he came, what it meant in the context of the Ten Commandments.
“Huh,” he said as he crossed his arms, settling in. I was just getting started. This was going to be quite a 16-hour trip. Maybe I’d have a reason for those two Bibles after all.
As I drew in my next breath to better describe God’s grace, one of my teammates came over and asked the Hunter if he wanted to switch seats because my teammate had an aisle seat that might better suit this large man. I wanted to yell out: “NOOOO!!! We’re just getting started here. There is so much more to be said and heard!”
The Hunter said sure. He didn’t seem relieved really, but happy enough to have a more lenient seat. For the rest of the trip and for the months that have followed, I have thought about this experience, what God was teaching ME, what this experience meant for ME and MY relationship with God and what he wanted ME to be.Another one:
I meet a friend for dinner one night. We meet on the early side because I want to make the 7:00 train home. The one after that isn’t until 8:30. Our dinner runs late because we’re having such a good time, I cut the cab ride to the train station too close and miss the train. So annoyed. Now I have an hour and a half to kill; I’m tired; I’m a little cranky at the thought of not getting home until almost ten. I head back to my office, and shuffle through emails and work-related matters. At 8:20, I head back over to the station and climb aboard.
When we arrive at my home station, I stand near the doors waiting behind an elderly woman with a suitcase. The conductor helps her carry the suitcase down the train stairs and we are on our way. I walk faster, so reach the steps into the parking lot first. I feel her behind me, though, and know she needs help with the suitcase. I carry it down and say goodnight. She says thank you and walks down the sidewalk. I sense something about her and continue watching her as I walk to my car. I can’t figure out where she’s going because she’s not going toward any car. I get in my car and my long day comes out in a sigh.
The woman, still standing on the sidewalk, pulls her wallet out of her bag and starts to dig for a coin to put into the payphone. I drive over to her and ask if I can drive her somewhere. She looks at me without a hint of suspicion and says she would be grateful if I would. We pile her stuff in and she tells me she needs to go to the seminary about 5 miles away. We start talking and she tells me her name is Sister Sarah and that she teaches at the seminary and had been visiting Philadelphia for a few days. She says she didn’t think she would make the train because of her flight time and was concerned she would have to take a cab all the way, which would be very expensive. But, her flight arrived a half hour early (we both expressed our astonishment about this), and accordingly, she was able to make the last train. “And, then,” she says, “when I get here, there you are to take me home. God is really taking care of me tonight.”For several days, I have been wondering about Sister Sarah and what it meant to ME that I met her. What role did she play in MY story?
Just over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He came into the world “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9:26) He came to fulfill the “Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 5:17) He came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28) He came to bridge the divide that sin caused between us and God. I believe, so all is well, right? I can go into my little cocoon and know that I am safe in Christ. Can you believe what Christ did for me? Me, me, me.
In the last day or so, I’ve been reading Hebrews and came across this: "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ [in contrast to the blood from animal sacrifice], who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Heb. 9:14)
Reading this was like being hit by lightening. It’s the “so that” part that got me, gets me. This story, the worldwide, eternal story playing out, is not about me. And it’s not about you. You would think that because it comes so naturally to want things or make things about me (you), it would be hard to accept that it isn’t. But, actually, there is a kind of exhilarating, unexpected, freedom in this. It is a relief. Because when it's about me, or you, or us, it seems so small and insignificant. It's so self-indulgent really. Everything feeds the me machine. What does that food, drink, drug, act, person, sunset, picture do for me?
Feel the weight that lifts from you, though, when you say this out loud: "This is not about me. This is not about me." There's something to it, I'm telling you. It's like putting down a heavy bag. Or sighing. There is magnificence in knowing and understanding, that what it is about is God. So much bigger, so much more significant. It is God’s story. I am here, and He has cleared my conscience, to serve Him, to play the part, the role, He has given me.
God knew Cornelius needed more than anything someone to show they cared about him and that he did not have to know all the secrets of success to get out of his past and into hope. His hope could reside in Christ. God knew that the Hunter needed to understand that it is impossible not just for him, but for all but Christ himself to keep the Ten Commandments. The Hunter suddenly had hope. God knew that Sister Sarah would be too tired to wait for a cab to take her home from the train station when she arrived after her trip home from Philadelphia. So, He placed hope in a Nissan there for her to get her home safely.
I am so grateful it's not about me, or you, for that matter (no offense).