I have writers block lately. Notice the slack in new posts? Yup. So, I am going to share something that I just ran across again today. I read and printed this back in 2008 and had it stored away somewhere. As I was rummaging through some old things, I found it again and re-read it. It was written by Mike Donehey of the Christian group Tenth Avenue North (awesome band, by the way – if you haven’t heard their stuff, you should check them out). It touched my heart back then so much so that I had it printed. It hits home again today.
To see the original location of this writing, click here. It’s a bit long, but worth the read.
Alright, here’s the first of 12 chapters. Remember, this is going to be a bit more like a book, so you’ll need to get out of blog mode for a second and get ready to read.)
So I was talking with this girl in Cincinnati last month. She was was very talkative, very lively, and apparently, very much in love with Michael Phelps. “I love Michael Phelps! I love Him! He’s the best ever!!!!!!!!! OMG! He’s such a good swimmer, and he’s such a great American, and he’s so good at speaking chinese and he’s so so cute….” She went on and on for several minutes or perhaps it was hours, until I finally thought to ask,“so you like swimmers huh?” “Oh yes. They’re very exciting!” “Do you think its possible that you only like Phelps so much because he won?” “Oh no way. All swimmers are amazing. I love Michael because he’s a swimmer. and swimmers make my heart melt.” “Oh, ok. Well then, could you name for me another swimmer on the U.S. National team?”
It’s crazy. This girl was in love with Michael Phelps simply because he won. She seriously was. At least, she appeared to be anyway. She spoke of him with a great deal of affection, and she even seemed to shiver at the mention of his name. Now ok, I admit, the guy did win eight gold medals and could probably outswim a shark if the situation called for it, so he definitely deserves some accolades. but how sad is it to think that he’s become a hero and now a heart-throb simply because he has the name, “winner” attached to him now?
This girl revealed it to me, when she didn’t know the name of one other single U.S. swimmer besides him. If she had even watched his meets she would have at least seen the other swimmers right? Well, not necessarily. Think about it. Do you really think anyone would know Michael Phelps’ name had he lost? Would he still be on the cover of Wheaties and Sports Illustrated, and Rosetta Stone had he only won silver? Bronze? How about a fourth place personal best? Not as exciting is it?
And so I’ve been thinking about Mr. Phelps lately, and coming to grips with the sad truth that we’re not so very different from him and his situation either. I mean, we all work on this system of performance in some way or another, whether we’d say it that way or not. Sure, it may not be as blatant as the sporting world can be, but don’t we all have to cope with the fact that we are accepted and praised based solely upon how well or how poorly we perform? We sell more than our co-workers, and we get a raise. We show up to work late, and we get fired. It’s not that its inheritantly evil or anything, it’s just the way things are. Even in our respective groups and clicks there’s an underlying system in place. Are we funny enough? Are we cool enough? Are we witty enough to keep everyone’s attention, or are we too socially awkward to be brought in?
It may have been several years ago now, but to this day, I can still remember how frighteningly intense parents could get at my pee-wee soccer games. Its really actually comical thinking back on it, but you’d be amazed at just how important a parks and rec soccer game can be for a group of adults desperately seeking validation vicariously living through their child’s victory. Funny too, because most of those kids are far more interested in the orange slices at half time and the hi-c boxes at the end of the game than they are with the score. But not their parents!
Oh no! They’d scream at the ref til they got kicked off the field. They’d berate the five year olds on the opposing team with insults. There were even times when they would load the water cooler with amphetamines! Ok, so I don’t know if that ever happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me, because the thing was, it was a really big deal who won and who lost. It always seemed like there was much more riding on the line than whose name was on the little plastic gold trophies at the end of the season pizza party.
What is that? What is it in all of us that longs so badly to be on top! To be better than the next guy? How come when our favorite team wins, we exclaim, “We won!” but when our team loses, we lament, “They lost?” How come we’re always figuring out ways to attach ourselves to greatness? What do we feel is riding on our emerging victorious? Why do people in college get in fights over ultimate frisbee? Isn’t it strange?
Strange most of all I suppose, because we all know that religion operates on the exact same principle. You perform well, and God will accept you. Say your prayers, fight your jihad, stop drinking and give to the poor, and then it will be well with you and the divine. Every single faith system works on this principle. Muslims stand before Allah and have their good works weighed against their bad. A Hindu’s place in life is dictated by how well they lived the life before it. One day they’ll be good enough to be a cow. Buddhists attain enlightenment. Mormons serve their two years and get a planet. On and on it goes. Do better, be better, live strong, play hard, just do it. It may have different names but its always the same story. Good works = Good standing
I perform, and therefore I am accepted. And that’s the way it is. Or is it?
I wonder if we’ve realized just how radical the gospel of Jesus really is? Do we realize that its completely counter intuitive to everything we’ve ever learned and everything we’ve ever experienced? As Bono once put it, “grace…breaks the spell of karma.” And that’s because the gospel works on a different system altogether. While everyone else on earth proclaims, “you do good and I’ll bring you close,” Christ proclaims, “I was good enough for you to come close.” Tim Keller explains that while religion says, “I obey therefore I am accepted by God, the gospel says, ” I am already accepted by God because of what Jesus Christ has done for me, therefore I obey.”
He died for us. He performed for us. We are not accepted because we won eight gold medals. We’re not accepted because we kicked the game winning goal. We are accepted because He was perfect for us. He earned it. He deserved it. We are winners now, even though we never won for ourselves.
And that’s stinging isn’t it? The gospel hurts our ego terribly I think, because deep down, I think we all want to earn it. We want to say, “I did it! Look at how great I did! Look at how awesome I am!” But the gospel says, “Look at Him! Look at what he did! Look at how awesome He is!” It’s a great relief and a terrible blow to know that you are excessively loved and celebrated, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you! In fact, it never will have anything to do with you, because this whole thing is about Him.
And that’s where the title Over and Underneath comes from for our record. The gospel is exceedingly clear that even at the very heights of our human achievement and purity, Christ has gone higher. And that’s pretty humbling isn’t it? He is over and above the most pure and the most successful, and there isn’t one person on earth who doesn’t need Him or owe Him everything. He has out performed us all! And at the same time, at the very depths of human wretchedness and insignificance, Christ has gone lower, bearing our sins, taking our shame, suffering the worst and most embarrassing loss of all time. The loss of his right standing before his Father. and the loss of his divine purity by clothing himself in our defeat on the cross. There is no depth that is too low for his grace. There is no failure that has fallen to far. He is underneath us all.
And this friends, should do something profound in you and in me. When we see that He is better than we could ever be, it cultivates a deep humility in us, because who are we to look down on anyone? Don’t we need Jesus just as much as the next person? And at the same time, as we view to what great lengths he went to to forgive us, hanging on the cross for the very ones who nailed him to it, that should sober us greatly when we think we are beyond forgiveness. Is there really anything to dark that his blood cannot clean? And that should give us great security.
He won what we couldn’t win. He lost what we couldn’t afford to lose. We are loved, and it has nothing to do with us. And when we get that, that’s when the greatest thing of all happens. When we no longer are taking inventory of ourselves all the time, feeling good when we do well, and feeling worthless when we fail. When we no longer swing like a pendulum between pride and shame, when we no longer think of ourselves higher than we ought or lower than we ought that’s when we can finally and with great relief, think of ourselves less. When we are finally freed from our obsession with ourselves, that we might be obsessed with Him, that is when we’ve received the greatest gift the gospel can give.
“But we, with unveiled faces, beholding Christ’s glory, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another.” 2 Corinthians 3:18