Jesus has two favorite disguises: the least of these, and the servant.
It’s hard to say which he likes or uses more. Sometimes he combines them, appearing as the lowly servant, the slave in rags. Is he here to help or be helped?
The funny thing is, he tells us plainly these are his two most common disguises, and yet we often miss him anyhow. We keep looking for that lantern-jawed hero, and he keeps showing up as the chinless beggar or the shuffling cleaning lady. We want spectacle. He prefers hiddenness. We want miracle. He deals mostly in cups of cold water. We look for a man in fine clothes. He shows up, unnervingly, with none at all.
But we can’t claim he didn’t warn us:
“…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35-40).
I wear, he says, the disguise of the least of these.
And I wear the disguise of the servant:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8).
I tell you that to tell you this: I had several sightings of Jesus last week. Cheryl and I were the guests of World Vision Canada on a tour of some of World Vision’s projects in northeast Brazil. I have been on several ministry-related trips before, and I anticipated this would be like those.
It was and it wasn’t. I saw, as I have on every trip like this I’ve been on, remarkable work being done by dedicated people. I witnessed, as I have each time, the gospel in motion: being lived, and breathed, and declared in word and deed.
But what was different this time was how often I caught sight of Jesus himself, in one of his disguises, or both together.
One story to serve for dozens.
In a shanty-town – in South America, they’re called favelas – we met Paulo. He looks like an ex-bouncer, and maybe is. He wore a shirt of the brightest pink I’ve ever seen. If Plato’s right, and everything on earth is only a dim reflection of a heavenly prototype, that shirt is the prototype for pink.
As we walked through the favela with Paulo, it quickly became clear that he was a local hero: children ran to him, teens high-fived him, adults rushed up to shake his hand. At first I didn’t know why, but as the day unfolded, and we heard Paulo’s story, it all became clear.
Paulo is Jesus. He makes the word flesh and moves into the neighborhood. He has, in his own words, two goals: to keep children from all that would destroy them – drugs, crime, prostitution, no education, no dream – and to rescue those who have already fallen prey to these things.
He’s succeeding beyond anything I could ask or imagine. We heard the testimony of three of his boys. All had been drug dealers. All had done prison time. One had killed others. Everyone had given up on them.
But not Paulo. He loved them, and called them to Christ and his kingdom, and stuck with them, and poured into them. And slow, slow, each came. They found hope, and healing, and a life worth living. They found Christ.
And now they go and do likewise.
All because one man was so available to Christ that Christ could fully inhabit and does his work through him. At first, I didn’t see it, it was so cleverly disguised. But once I did, I could see nothing else.
But it makes me wonder: how often am I missing Jesus right in my midst?
And even more: Am I Jesus in disguise for anyone?
The curse of giftedness is laziness. It's complacency. It's settling for mediocrity, because mediocrity for a highly gifted person might be brilliance for a less gifted one. A one-talent person has to work hard to gain every inch. But a ten-talent person – a highly-gifted musician or chef or hairdresser or speaker – can coast for miles, and still get applause.
Recently I took a hard look in the mirror and realized I've been coasting in a few things. I'm not highly gifted in anything. But there are a few areas I've been living short of my ability.
I'm putting a plan together to change that.
Here's what my plan includes:
• Engaging in honest self-assement. I have to muster the courage to look full at myself and admit where I've become lazy, ineffective, unproductive, or deficient.
• Seeking honest feedback. I need others who love me enough to tell me the truth, no matter how unflattering, and then give them permission to tell it.
• Carving out time. No one drifts toward excellence. For me, two things are crucial to my getting better: reading, and practice. Both require dedicated time.
• Finding someone ahead of me willing to help me. I seek people who are brilliant at what I want to get better at, and I ask them to teach me or coach me.
• Deciding what success looks like. I try to envision what getting better looks like and then I set measurable goals toward it.
I'm writing this from Chicago, where I'm attending the Willow Creek Summit. This morning Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, said we should all change our middle name to "Better," as a pledge to live up to our full potential.
I have no intent of changing any part of my name.
But I do intend to get better.
What about you? Is there any area you're living short of your ability? What's your plan to get better? I'd love to hear about it.
I have under 2 weeks left here in Wales, and then a last week in England before I return to Canada. My main project here has been to write a novel on the life and times of King David. It is nearing completion, and will likely weigh in at around 400 pages or more.
Here's a sample, the two opening chapters. Throughout the book, I've woven together four narrative voices – two third-person accounts, one telling David's story, one telling Saul's, and two first-person accounts, Michal (David's first wife to whom he becomes estranged) telling her side of the story, and Joab (David's nephew who becomes his military commander) telling his. The juxtaposition of these four voices creates much of the dramatic tension in the novel.
The novel opens with Michal as an old woman. The second chapter shifts to a portrait of David as shepherd boy.
I hope you enjoy.
If he called me, even now, I would come. I see him most days. He looks young enough from a distance, but not near up. Within striking distance he is withered and ashen, and when you are close enough to whisper, or to kiss – though I only imagine this – he is a ruin of wizened flesh, of crumbling bone.
His voice is still strong.
But he never speaks to me, hasn’t in years, though that terrible hateful silence that stood between us so long has worn to almost nothing. But not a word in my direction. Sometimes he seems to smile at me without looking at me. Some days the shadow that passes between us is almost an affection. But I will tell you this: everyday I bear my emptiness. That has not gone away in all this time – maybe it has grown – and now I must carry it to the grave. And lay it down there, I pray.
Even now, too late to cure this emptiness, if he called I would come. I would put my withered body beside his withered body and remember when we were other than this, completely other. He was sleek and swift like a deer, handsome and quick to laugh, and I too was not hard to look at, to be with. His muscles were not like some men’s, fists roiling in a sack of leather: more like open hands moving beneath silk sheets. I have not forgotten what I felt then and think one touch from his hand, dry and papery as it is, could wake it.
I have been bitter. I am bitter. I do not hide it. I live in memories. I dwell in another time. And honestly, I cannot tell you whether memory is refuge from bitterness, or its breeding ground.
Sometimes there is dark consolation in bitterness. It has a sour pleasantness. It is like the taste of your own blood.
But I will have to take you back there to make you understand.
He loves this time of day. The sun is down, but darkness still crouches beneath the horizon. The sky brims with color. Wind sweeps the fields and drives out the day's wilting heat. And everything wakes up. Birds burst with one last chorus, one last flourish of flight. Insects in grass and sky whirr and click. Creatures that move on the ground scuttle and slither. The sheep rouse with fresh hunger.
And he rouses, too. The langor of mid-day falls off him in a rush. He is quick and light again, keenly watchful.
Which is good. Which is needed. Because the lions rouse, too.
But he loves this as well. The alertness in himself. The air ecstatic with presentiment, like angels about to sing. He feels in himself prayer and sinew join, God’s wild presence and his own sheer aliveness fit together tight and supple as laced fingers. It steadies him, readies him for come what may.
He rubs the pocket of his slingshot warm, and cradles in it one of the stones he’d plucked from the stream that morning. It’s so round and smooth and green, it will be a shame to lose it. Never mind that. An instinct, sharp and urgent, tells him he’ll need it, soon.
Jesse is angry again. Angry at him. At some task poorly performed. Some chore neglected. Something, always something. His anger is never explosive. More a low steady seething, a frustration that shows itself in the tightness of his voice, the abruptness of his gestures. A hissing of words spoken through clenched jaw. He puts things down, words and wood and mattocks and adzes, with sharp hardness. That’s his way of yelling.
Jesse’s squatness is a mystery: that from his loins sprung seven tall men. Though that look, the strong angular bones embossing all seven faces, the tumble of dark hair falling in wild curls, is evident enough in the father. When he was younger, before his wife grew sick, he must have been dashingly handsome. But the burden that befell him on her illness – all those boys, and a farm to tend – has worn him stumpish and churlish. Worry has plowed his face like oxen, in deep furrows, but without the neatness of rows.
“What is this, boy?”
Jesse stands over a sheep that looks perfectly normal.
“This.” And with that, Jesse presses his stubby hands, spread wide, into the back of the sheep’s woollen coat, just above one shoulder, and parts the wool so the skin shows. A muddy sore emblazons the pink skin. It is browny red and creamy yellow, and bugs spot it like currants. The sheep flinches beneath Jesse’s roughness.
“I didn’t see that.”
“That’s what I mean. You didn’t see it. You were sitting in your shady oasis composing your little poems, singing your little love songs to the sky, and you didn’t see it. David, listen: to see you have to look. Huh? This is basic. No looking, no seeing. You get that? Look, David, look. Your head is so far up in the clouds you can’t see what is straight in front of you. Ah!”
Jesse tosses up his hands and walks away. “Take care of it, boy,” he says.
David sits on a rock and gathers the sheep to him. It trembles, and so for several minutes he just holds it to calm it, whispering in its ear. Then he takes his bag of wine and oil, and cleans and treats the wound.
He’d wanted to tell Jesse about the lion.
The sun-starched land has turned blue with shadow and David rises to gather his sheep. As he steps down from his perch, he sees a deeper shadow move swift and furtive between rocks. A lone sheep is just beyond the fastness of those rocks. The sheep’s neck is bent to a lush tussock of grass. It is oblivious to danger. David runs down the steep incline, zigzagging like a loom shuttle, and when he reaches the valley floor he sprints straight. The lion is still crouching, he guesses, behind the rock. The sheep is still grazing. When David is a hundred paces, the lion bursts from its cover, quick as thought. David knows he can not catch it. He begins the rapid switching motion in his wrist that makes his sling loop faster and faster, its motion a transparent whorl of air. He moves the sling from his side to above his head, and then slightly behind it. The lion is so locked in its bloodlust it doesn’t hear him coming. The sheep has raised its head, petrified, suddenly aware of death thundering down.
David can see the lion slowing slightly, coiling up on its haunches for its lunge. He picks a spot where he reckons the lion will be in a few seconds, stretches his left hand to steady his aim, and looses the stone. It streaks across the gloaming like a dark star shooting. The lion is nearly crouched back on its hinds, ready to take air, when the stone finds its mark: the back of its skull, just behind the ear. It staggers sideways with the blow. The sheep, snapped from its stupor of terror, bolts. The lion turns to see David, still running toward it. It stands wavering, confused. It takes a few massive leaps toward the sheep’s retreat, then wheels and starts coming at David.
He tucks his sling into his pouch and, still running, unsheaths his knife. The lion has regained its strength. It is running full-out but in a rearing up motion, ready to sail at him. This is what David is counting on, this preciseness of the beast’s reflexes. He runs harder. When he and the lion are almost on each other, the lion does what he’s hoped: leaps, its body eclipsing sky, consuming David in its shadow. He dives under it, spins on his back, and plunges his knife in its stomach to the hilt. He holds on, feels the massive body shudder through his blade. The lion’s belly opens like tent flaps. The insides rush out hot.
The lion hits the ground on its shoulders, and rolls. It tries to get up, but can’t. David walks behind it, sprawled in its own lake of blood. He is ready to finish the job. The lion turns its head and bares its teeth but no sound comes out. Its yellow eyes grow dim. It flops its great head to earth, panting, chest heaving. It closes its eyes and stops breathing. David places his hand on the warm flank of its body. A sign of honor. A sign of affection.
He walks over to where he first hit the lion. On the ground, as though waiting, is his green stone. He picks it up, rolls it in blood-warm hands, and then washes both in the stream.
He gathers his sheep and heads home.
Happy to have his stone back.
That night he writes a song, his longest yet. And the next morning, as sun leaps up from behind rocks and throws its arms wide across the earth, he sings it aloud to his sheep, who graze unperturbed.
Praise the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.
He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the pine trees.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the coneys.
The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
Then man goes out to his work,
to his labor until evening.
How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.
But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord.
A ewe and a lamb look up. The lamb bleats pleadingly, as if for him to sing again. So he does.