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The Fatal Lure of Appearances

A legal case in which we are advocating involves, in a small part, the insignia of a street gang organization in a form of a tattoo. The insignia was disrespected by a member of the gang, resulting in some response from the membership. Street gangs identify their turf and meeting places with their signature graffiti. Writing over it or otherwise disfiguring it is considered a serious affront, calling for some kind of retribution. The “colors” of the gang are also held in inviolable reverence.

While some may look with disdain on these identity markers and think they are above such devotion to outward signs, we all use them. Furthermore, we all revere them, our own that is. While our reverence for identity markers may not quite approach the level of idolatry, it certainly governs our behavior and spiritual journeys.

Our many denominations have well defined identity markers that silently but loudly proclaim, “I am one of ‘us’.” Ushers or greeters are an interesting group. In some churches they are dressed like businessmen in dark suits with a flower pinned to their lapels. The attendees typically arrive in formal dress, following the consensus that this shows respect to God and His “house”. An impeccably dressed usher garners the polite respect and honor from smiling congregational members. His wife and children mirror his image. “A fine family, a wonderful father, a devoted servant of God” the identity marker proclaims. Few may know anything about his heart. Regardless of his heart and devotion to God, he knows he cannot show up on a Sunday morning wearing a tie-less shirt and blue jeans. He would not be permitted to usher that day. “Bad testimony to our congregation and visitors.” Actually, he would be in violation of a taboo, of not wearing the identity marker.

Then, of course, there are other churches where the ushers and greeters, and pastors, are dressed in tee shirts and shorts, weather permitting. Their identity marker proclaims, “There is no pretense here.” Should someone walk in wearing a formal suit or elaborate gown, eyebrows may rise. “Mmmm…who is this guy (or woman)? Who are they trying to impress?” In such churches, should an usher feel like dressing up, perhaps even wearing a tuxedo he still hasn’t returned to the rental store from the wedding the day before, his fellow ushers would be snickering, teasing and talking about the event for weeks. If the man wore formal clothes to perform his church duties every Sunday, talk would change from teasing banter to serious confrontation. “Hey, what are you trying to show or say?” In other words, “That’s not part of our identity marker. You are in violation.”

A prideful, controlling, righteously angry preacher may last years in a church. “He has his faults or idiosyncrasies like we all do, but he preaches right from the word of God.” Should that same pastor be seen smoking a cigar on his front porch one afternoon, his entire vocation may well be called into question. At least he would be the topic of juicy gossip. Pride, control, anger, self-righteousness, are all excusable, but smoking a cigar violates the identity marker and causes trouble. (So would being seen going into a theater to watch an R-rated movie, unless, of course, that R-rated movie was The Passion of the Christ.)

While driving last night I was listening to a Christian radio station. The preacher’s topic was, “Do you have a ticket to heaven?” Now that is a weird metaphor. Of course he explained what had to be done to get this free ticket, namely a prayer asking for forgiveness, thanking Jesus for “dying for me” and “accepting” Him. Very easy, involving no self-sacrifice, denial of self, willingness to suffer pain and persecution and abandon all  self-ambition in favor of God’s will. Then he told a joke I heard before, of how he asked a person on a train if the seat next to her was saved. She said no. He replied, “Well then, are you saved?” (Why do so many of these people claim old stories as their own experiences and name ministries and colleges after themselves?) Anyway, that’s another identity marker. “Yes, I am saved.” “Oh, praise the Lord, brother [sister]!” Instant appearance of friendship and brotherhood based on the appearance of clothing and words. I include clothing because if the person he needed to sit with was a poor, disheveled old man with few teeth and poor vocabulary, he may not have taken him at his word if he said, “Yes, I am saved.” He certainly would not have been asked to be a church usher.

So many of us settle for what is taught as the minimum requirement for that ticket to heaven. Once we think we got it, then we wait for the transformation that will happen in heaven. Yet we are taught by Scripture to “be transformed,” to “have the mind of Christ.” The Bible is not a self-help book and you will never find “God helps those who help themselves” in it. We cannot transform ourselves or inculcate into our beings the mind of Christ. It is much easier to substitute the appearances of transformation than to allow the Spirit to shape us as the potter shapes the clay into whatever he wants.

The Olympics are back in Greece this year. St. Paul was very well acquainted with the vigor and discipline involved, and compared training for the games to developing our devotion, our apprenticeship to Christ. He wrote about “striving” and “running the good race”, not about laying on a sofa and relying on the grace of God to transform us as we watch TV or make idle talk with other bored people on the phone. “Striving” and “running the good race” does not refer to 12-hour workdays either.

The process of transformation is life long and very demanding. Salvation and sanctification cannot be separated. Forgiveness and transformation are two different things. We are scared of the demands, so it is natural to substitute the appearance of spiritual transformation and its identity markers for the real thing. When people asked me about my spiritual disciplines, growth and quality of prayer-life, responses tended toward hours spent in prayer and study, church services attended, services rendered, acts of mercy done, money donated “to God” (i.e. the church bank account) and other makers of identity as a good Christian. Such appearances garner the smiling approval of others also engaging in the appearance of transformation and dodging the self-sacrifice of participating in the passion of Christ and allowing that to do the work of transformation, which is grace.

Political campaign spots on TV are presentations of appearances, not substance. So is every commercial advertisement. The presentation of outward signs and appearances permeate our lives to such a profound degree that we cannot discern illusion from substance. The appearance of our justice system, of war, of the reasons for political and legislative acts, and that of our 2000 plus Christian denominations are mistaken for substance and true progress and transformation and reform.

The life and passion of our Christ define for us the real identity markers: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8, NIV). That is the substance of Christlikeness, to which we are called.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services  © August 13, 2004

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