You can’t be anyone but yourself
You can’t be anyone but yourself. At best you might become a B+ imitation, but the people around you will always feel like you’re sporting a facade. Because you are.
Len Sweet taught me to figure out who I was by citing an old rabbinical legend about Rabbi Zusya, a Chasidic master who lived in the 1700’s. He’s famous for saying, “When I get to the heavenly court, God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ Rather he will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
One of Len’s major complaints with the church at large is that we’re all trying to be someone we’re not. We’ve bought into the modern manufacturing paradigm that says B + C = A, so if we can just discover the formula for creating Better programs and Creative churches, we’ll ensure A+ pastors. But it doesn’t work like that. The more you try to pretend you’re the next Billy Sunday, Bono, or Henry Nouwen, the more you give yourself permission to act like the world owes you the respect it never gave them. Thus the B + C prescription produces fewer A-postles than A-holes.
“Life is false to formula.”
Reducing the complexity of personal calling and vocation to a repeatable process incubates mediocrity (at best), if not total missional misconduct. The truth is that God has summoned us to lead. We have been “called into existence by circumstance.” Like Esther we have been placed here, now, for this. And the harder we work to be like Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll or Billy Graham or Leonard Sweet, the further we travel from the purposes and plans of God.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from one another. But the avenues for education and enrichment are the means, not the ends. We learn more by understanding Rick Warren’s thought process than by simply copying Saddleback’s church services. If we follow recklessly after God like they do, the manifestation of God’s Spirit will be equally intense in us.
Don’t look for replication, but innovation.
Don’t try for implementation, but imagination.
Don’t model procedures, but creativity.
For the record, being creative isn’t easy. “Innovation inspires a culture of complaint,” but you’ve got to do what God has put in you to do, and grow skin thick enough to do it well for a long time.
Len once told me about a group of pastors during the Roman persecution. Since churches often held their gatherings in crypts, many pastors were employed as gravediggers. It was the perfect cover. They dug out huge cave systems and gallerias, some of which spanned hundreds of acres and descended more than four stories underground. Their familiarity with the tomb-ways allowed them to select the best possible venues for Christian worship. One key facet of their subterranean piety was the beautification of those catacombs with Christian symbols, scriptures, and prayers. There is a kind of insect that lives underground and lays its eggs in the sand. It is from these insects that the gravedigger priests took their name: Fossores. So too, those pastors were laying the eggs of the future-church in the sands of the crypts of Rome.
Len challenged me to become a “Fossorian,” someone for whom there was an unbroken wholeness between art, work, and faith. I began to ask myself some very basic questions. Previously, I had been so focused on what God wanted me to do that I had neglected who God wanted me to become. Please understand I knew God wanted me to be holy, to be like him, to be devoted, to be passionate, to constantly be learning and growing and developing, etc. But—specifically—I didn’t have a good answer to the question, “What does the best possible version of David McDonald look like?”
The more I prayed and sought the face of God, the more the answers startled me. I never expected God to authenticate my love of science fiction, for example, since everyone else in my life had always cautioned me against old wives’ tales. Neither did I anticipate that God would help me find meaning in hagiographies and Patristic folklore. These discoveries energized the fantastical components of my imagination, encouraging a SciFi crossover with classical theology. My investigation into fossorian spirituality began with The UnDwellable City, a series of science fiction novels I wrote for my son. At the time, Jacob was distressingly bored by church and came home miserable every Sunday. We had great family devotionals, and he prayed regularly on his own, but church was a chore. To help, I asked him what could make church better. He didn’t know. After weeks of gently pulling information out of him, I tried another tactic and asked Jacob about his five favorite things in the world. He told me they were scuba diving, sports, adventure stories, Atlantis, and zombies. I took those five things and called together some of the people at our church—an artist, a graphic designer, a teacher, and a media presenter. I told them I was going to write a science fiction “gospel” for my son and would like their help to turn it into an after school mid-year VBS, a live storytelling experience, and five illustrated novels. No one had ever done anything like this before, but we tried and it was a smash success. The novels were released one-a-month through the church. They told the story of a Sunday School teacher traveling to Atlantis on the anniversary of his wife’s death. After all five books had been released, we held our after school program and nearly every child that attended came from the local elementary schools (i.e. they were not church kids) to hear the story told in small chunks and learn about Christology while playing with Lego. The kids built submarines and sea monsters with toy bricks, then acted out their favorite parts of the story in groups. At the conclusion of the VBS, we invited the kids, their families, our church, and the community to a live storytelling experience in a large performing arts theater. I stood up and told a 100,000-word novel in 90 minutes, received a standing ovation, and gave all the proceeds to a local charity that focuses on literacy. That was the first time I felt like a Fossorian. My art (literature), my work (pastoral leadership) and my faith (as a father and as a speculative theologian) had joined together precisely as Len admonished. I have done other storytelling projects—most recently The Revelation of June Paul, which offered a counter-proposal to Left Behind dispensationalism and a counterpoint to the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil—but The UnDwellable City was the first and the most personal.
I was aware, however, that I had only experienced this “unbroken wholeness” outside of the confines of my normal, everyday life. The stories were great but they were special projects. I wanted my entire waking life to feel that kind of synergism, and I still had a long way to go. Part of the problem was my perspective on church leadership. As a whole, western Christians tend to view ministry as a kind of sacred management. Secular leadership thinking governs how we do what we do, with some scripture stapled to a few ideas so they feel godly. This is a major problem, and something we must ultimately curb.
The definitive moment came for me when a publisher called and asked me to write something on leadership, and I didn’t want to. I realized then that if I was going to give my life to something, I didn’t want it to be “helping people lead”; I wanted it to be “helping people feel saturated with the Spirit.” But when I pitched that idea to the publisher they told me no one would be interested. To be fair, this particular publisher dealt predominantly with leadership material, but it felt strange that leadership and spirituality should be divorced. I wanted to bring them back together in my own life. And if I couldn’t, then it was clear “leadership” had to go.
As the business world sees the leader’s role as rearranging reality and filtering facts into iconic symbols of healing and redemption, how much more should the church be very clear about its mission of healing and redemption.
Len has always banged the drum in opposition to the Church’s leadership infatuation. He reminds us we are followers first and any “leadership” is really “followership” (“follow me as I follow Christ” ). Because of his repeated emphasis on the Creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, every time I heard Len speak I began to wonder what it was like for Adam to be the first follower. He was called to “conserve and conceive God’s creativity”, and he derived his vocation directly from his identity as an image-bearer of the Almighty.
Looking deeper into tselem (the Hebrew word for “image”) I realized it has a wide range of meanings. It can mean “image”, or “copy”, or “idol” (that’s the best translation, actually) or “shadow”. I’ve always found the “image-bearer” language very angular. Normal people can’t use “image-bearer” in a sentence while drinking coffee at Starbucks, not unless they’re taking a philosophy class and have a penchant for speaking in British raj or wearing black berets. I began playing with the alternative renderings of tselem, certain there was an important clue hidden there to help me speak about the inherent spirituality of following God while doing God’s work for (and with) others. I found myself coming back again and again to the word “shadow.” That’s who we really are: shadows of God. We go where God goes. We do what God does. We’re like him. Shadowing God requires that we stay in step with God’s activity and movement in the world. Shadowing God requires that we love what God loves and recognize that we have no real control over what he does or where he goes. Our only job is to stay with him so the shadow doesn’t get distorted. This, then, became my way of talking about church leadership and of spirituality in general. In fact, it’s the way our entire church now talks about being human. We’re shadowing God—whether as leaders, or first followers, or ministers, or plumbers, or business people, or stay-at-home moms. It’s become such an inherent part of our church fabric that we don’t even use the word “leader.” Our people just refer to the areas they lead as one way they’re “shadowing God.” They don’t see it as a special privilege; they just feel like it’s a normal part of life. God has moved them to a place where they need to lead in order to stay in step with his Spirit.