By Doyle Sager
What is it about church life and all things religious which cause us to take ourselves so seriously? Jesus seemed to have lots of fun at the expense of the self-important religious leaders of his day. He described them as strutting around in their long robes, reciting their practiced prayers. One can almost see a peacock spreading his feathers. Winston Churchill, watching a pompous politician walk by, once mumbled, “There but for the grace of God … goes God!”
Don’t get me wrong. Scripture calls us to take God and matters of faith very seriously. After all, we are dealing with life and death. The human predicament is our subject matter. Yes, take these issues very seriously. Yes, tremble at the notion of a Creator-God who calls us into covenant relationship. But here’s a good rule of thumb: Take God seriously. Yourself? Not so much. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that perhaps angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly!
My guess is that most of the things which turn off the “nones and dones” regarding organized religion could be summarized under the heading, “church people take themselves too seriously.” But this call for a lighter touch is not first of all about attracting people to church. It’s about being faithful to the incarnational shape of the gospel. We are God’s good news in the flesh, such as we are — flawed, bumbling and at times, comic. The Apostle Paul called us “cracked pots” (2 Cor. 4:7). And yet God chooses to work through our messed up, imperfect lives. Covering up, overcompensating and hiding only serve to distort the message of the Cross.
What practices could we put in place to assure a little more lightheartedness and humility? A good discipline for any regular churchgoer is to put yourself in the place of someone outside the faith — someone with doubts, someone who has been burned by church or someone who doesn’t know an epistle from an apostle. How would all of our posturing and preening look and sound to this person?
Other suggestions might include the habit of welcoming the honest feedback of a spouse or other trusted friend. Harry Truman once asked his wife, Bess, “How many truly great men do you suppose there are in the world?: She replied, “One less than you think.” I’ve told my wife that her spiritual gift is honesty. I don’t always like it, but I always need it.
Another safeguard against self-importance: Take the long view. On a recent weekend, I returned to a former pastorate, joining in their 150th anniversary celebration. In all of the reminiscing, I was struck by the fact that no lay person mentioned a single sermon I had preached or any profound statement I had made while leading a Bible study (you would think I had said something profound in 12 years!). Nor did they name a powerful pastoral prayer or an instance of effective worship leadership. In other words, they were not pegging their memories to the times when I was probably taking myself most seriously. What people did remember were my more human moments of vulnerability and humanity.
Since it’s been awhile since I sat in a seminary classroom, I decided recently to do some reading of Karl Barth’s life and theology (I know, talk about taking yourself too seriously!). Since his early writings in the 1920s, the Swiss theologian has been hugely influential — and enormously controversial. One would think that his success and disputed views might have caused him to retreat into self-importance. Not so. Scholar Robert McAfee Brown quotes Barth in a moment of self-deprecating honesty. Barth said of himself, “The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God. … As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!’ Truly, the angels laugh.”
So, the next time I sense that I may be behaving in an over-the-top, peacock-strutting, overbearingly self-important way, I will grow very quiet. I will listen. Shhh! Is that the sound of angels snickering?