We are embodying something beautiful. It is sensible – one can sense us.
But are we “visible” enough? Are we a “contrast society” like we aspire to be? Perhaps the most visible we were last year was during our Mike Brown vigil outside the future police headquarters. It made some of us feel like, “Finally! We made ourselves known in some way.” Others are still talking about the relational damage they experienced when we appeared to be anti-police and declared some extreme versions of a political stance. Some of us are eager to be visible. Others seem opposed to it or experience being visible as being exposed, even shameful.
Visible as radicals
These are thoughts we considered when we did some theology last week around the question, “What is radical?” We had John Wesley for our example of someone who fits the criteria for being such a person. Part of what made him so radical was his willingness to be visible, and often in striking contrast to both church and society. For instance, Curtis Book quoted him saying, “Money never stays with me. It would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible, lest it should find its way to my heart.” That certainly contrasts with common sense in the U.S.!
Wesley’s sincere convictions made him notorious. But there is a much more common form of being visible that we want to avoid. A contrast society is not visible in the way the world vies to be more notorious than someone else. Take Justin Bieber and Adele for example. They have been competing for #1 on the charts with songs about being forgiven, of all things! We are all for forgiveness to get on someone’s screen, right? But we hardly want to make the forgiveness of Jesus visible like a pop artist gets famous, do we? There are certain kinds of visible we just don’t want to practice: publicity-seeking, or political theatrics, or “show,” in general
Matt 6:3-4: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
We think seeking notoriety or fame is a temptation, not an aspiration. A contrast society built by Jesus needs to rely on its radicality becoming visible, not rely on visibility to make it seem radical.
The little way
We agreed that the “little way” is better. It is the way of not trying to be visible. If you are trying to be visible, you probably have nothing from Jesus to show. The kind of contrast that makes us visible is: our palpable authenticity — you know it, you see it, there are no deceptive frills, it is frank. Our radicality says, “Do you want to? I do!” It is sincere. We need to let that smallness become visible, something like the widow’s worship became visible to one with eyes to see it.
Mark 12 :41-44: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’”
When we tried to figure out what, if any, balance there was in all of this, we decided that being visible is a matter of what we lead with. We could lead with techniques that make us visible. Or we could rely on the revelation to push us to make it known. Our lead is very rooted, practical and, by nature, visible. We build the people of God – that’s the lead. Other things might follow or coincide, but being “the together,” the anti-polarization – that’s contrast. This thought matches 1 Peter 4 10-11 in that it shows how the outward (people who yearn to be visible) and the inward (people who fear the attention is contaminating) connect:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks [an outwardly visible act], they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves [a small way to be called], they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
Some people will be, by nature and gifting, more “visible” (like Gandalf) and others will be, by nature and gifting, “smaller” (like Frodo). We are all both, in that we share in one body and seek one end.
Visible and small together
Leading by building the church is always going to be radical, and so prone to temptation and danger. When it comes to building the church with new disciples, the “visible” people may be prone to wanting instant results in response to a speech, or an ad, or an action. The “small” people are more likely to be content with the more common reality that conversion is, more times than not, about “Chinese water torture” evangelism – drip by drip. We do not change quickly. We may have to drag many people along the way until they can walk. When it comes to keeping the church built, the “visible” people may want to show the sword and induce a miracle to solve problems. Sometimes they should. The “smaller” might try to diminish our polarized environment, in which every problem becomes a me-centered social justice issue. Sometimes conflict should be avoided, too.
We did not come to every conclusion needed. But we were glad for our ability to do some theology. We are embodying something beautiful. It is sensible – one can sense us. So we were glad that we could conclude where Wesley did, even when he was content to work among the smallest and yet became so notorious. He was fond of quoting Paul in the middle of temptation and danger: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).