This tangenetic thread of thought was inspired by a quote I heard from Ravi Zacharias in one of his podcast episodes. I do not recall which one but you can find his podcasts linked on his website, http://rzim.org/media/listen. The quote is by F.W. Boreham in his essay titled “The Poppies And The Corn,” discussing their mutual glory;
There is a very lovable thing about poppies in the corn that I can never sufficiently admire. The poppies never belittle the corn, they glorify it. You’d think not the less but the more of the corn because of the poppies. At a rose show, one particularly radiant blossom puts all the surrounding roses to shame. They are beggared by comparison. That is because a show is all artificiality and affectation. Nature never humiliates her more modest children in that ridiculous way. As you watch the blood red poppies tossing in a sea of golden corn, it never occurs to you to institute a comparison. The poppies and the corn seem equally lovely. That is the glory of true greatness. Others are never humiliated in its presence. It elevates the mass. If a field were all poppies, the glory would have departed. The poppies need the corn. God makes nothing commonplace. Here is a gospel for those to whom the days seem grey because they have given up dreaming of poppies.
I couldn’t help but to contrast the essence of nature with the reality of the systems our world has constructed. Every culture possesses a highest moral standard: family honor, self reliance, individual dignity, etc. Whatever a culture’s standard is, it drives its members in a constant comparison battle. Grades, income, intelligence, beauty, strength, possessions, and abilities are all measured against the curve of everyone else. There are two ways to reach “success” in these systems: Either minimize how many are better than you or simply to be better than most. If all else fails, you can play the victim.
“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”
Our media has known this truth and has exploited it against the masses. Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is a brilliant and hilarious example. Stringing together random and seemingly innocent symbols of wealth, intelligence, strength, sophistication, and all around “manliness,” the commercials acts as a bait and switch, using humor and fast paced non-sense to sell you the idea that you are not as good as this man is but you could at least smell like him. The real deal maker, however, is that many of the commercials are not directed at the men, but the women of the men. Thus, the male audience watching are indirectly tricked into feeling superior to this man as he refuses to speak directly with us and instead opts to talk about us with our significant other. This also has the added brilliance of forcing the women to compare their men to this man and his audacious symbols of power, intelligence, and beauty. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” has now been amended with a manufactured dueling marketing campaign between two variations of its own product: Bearglove and Timber. Timber leans towards a more sophisticated persona while Bearglove embodies a more bullish “manly” persona. The layers of comparison are deep and nuanced. If you haven’t seen it, and wish to have it forever burned into your conscience, then proceed at your own risk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_hWeN249fs.
This is not a criticism of Old Spice. They are a product of the culture we have created. Marketers are selling products to meet the perceived needs of the public and individual by using the language and moral ideals of the people. When a company wants to market their product in a different culture, they frequently have to radically altar their message and branding to match the language and ideals of the new culture. The catch 22 is that through their marketing attempts, which flashes their enticing products standing high upon a presepese of the vernacular of extra-personal comparison, they reinforce and compound the competition culture. The constant commercialism flashing the lime light on this and that product or service acts as a constant reminder and a perpetual propaganda of the “truth” that I am not good enough without something else.
Our social media experience is built with anticipation of receiving attention and praise from others. We long for one more like, one more retweet, one more comment, and one more follower. We complain and rant against those who are inferior to us. We post our woes so that we might at least obtain some pity from our inconveniences. The most common picture posted on our social media now is the selfie. Depending on what study you read, on average a person will take between 3-7 selfies in a day. Our self is now the most photographed subject in the world. Our social media has become a competitive market of who is better.
The Elephant in the Church
The elephant in many, dare I say most, churches is that they also have created their own spiritualized culture of comparison. Usually employing a dual system of spoken and unspoken code to which members are compared to and graded upon. A localized dress code, approved religious vernacular, recommended reading list, sanctioned classes, internalized participation, specific doctrines, “biblical” political stances, permissible public forums, and a standardized boundary beyond which all ideas are anathema all act as the rubric by which we are measured. One might assume that I am discussing the prototypical fundamentalist church; I am not. Even the hipster, new ager churches have all of the above. Whatever the standard of the orthodox, the inverse will be standard for the heterodox. The orthodox now becomes the pariah and, as such, one must act accordingly or else bear the weight of negative comparison. Anything that doesn’t match the new standard is considered antediluvian and thus a threat.
It would be presumptuous to declaratively assume this truth about every church, but I must speculate if it is valid. In my church, a church which celebrates discussion and openness, I can still see glimpses of this. To ignorantly assume that one’s church doesn’t struggle with it would be self-defeating in a culture that constantly entices its members to contrast themselves amongst each other. The church is intrinsically a member of culture and it can either conform to the culture of comparison with its own prepackaged ideals and standards by which others compare themselves to or it can offer an alternative.
The Alternative Glory
Before discussing what this alternative would look like, the other side of this issue must be addressed. There is an appropriateness to discernment. Evaluating where oneself and others are is both useful and wholesome. It is also unavoidable. The only two outs for not observing and discerning the other characters in one’s life is comatose and death and dead and comatose people are not surprisingly beneficial. In order to best serve and love the neighbors in our direct and extended community, we must not just know of their existence but also of their physical and spiritual needs. This implies an assessment of conditions and character. Being ignorant of such details hobbles any attempt of benefitting the other. However, this is where our competition culture divulges from the self-sacrificing discernment. One labels and categorizes others so that one may know who the competition is while the other honestly observes and studies not to find a weakness to exploit but to find a need to meet. One seeks to exalt the self while the other seeks to exalt the other.
The alternative to the comparative materialistic society really is not something “other” or alien. The self-sacrificing glory is the deepest and greatest truth. The self-elevating glory enamored by culture acts only as the cheap knock-off of the original unadulterated glory existing before the existence of quarks and muons. As such, self-sacrificing glory that seeks to lift others up is a cornerstone upon which all of creation rests and is held together. When we see it peek through from under the mirage of the faux-glory, our souls resonate, whispering of its truth. This is the glory Jesus calls His disciples to.
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Luke 22:25-27
Glory of the Created
This being the reality upon which Nature rests emanates from the nature of its Creator. Having created all things, all things of glory are shadows of His. There is no runner-up because all runners are from Him. There is no second place. He is above all and in all and the reason for all. There is no scale of measurement or chart of comparison by which one may compare or contrast Him among His peers since in Him the scale and chart find their being. In Gods’s glory, all competition ceases.
Yet, this divine glory performs the inverse of the worldly glory permeating our culture. Rather than casting down, His brilliance illuminates. The whole earth is full of His glory. He works not to push others down but seeks to draw others to Himself. In His divine uniqueness (i.e. holiness), He does not aspire to be set up apart from all but rather to be with His People that they might be like Him. He continually comes down that others might be lifted up. In Eden, with Abraham, in Egypt, with Gideon, in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, with His people in exile, and in Bethlehem, God continually comes down,
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”
Philippians 2:6-9 ESV
His glory is never diminished through His lowly acts rather it is magnified. For the Creator, the way up is down. By being made low to lift His creation up, He is lifted up. Even in His miracles, He works with and among people. Rarely does He simply just do it completely by Himself. God is never the lone ranger. He involves humanity as a part of the process and through whom the miracles are performed. He doesn’t share His glory with any other deity, but He does share it with His people. “That is the glory of true greatness. Others are never humiliated in its presence.”
As such, we live in a constant state of discontinuity when we persistently attempt to lift ourselves up. When we constantly compare our own pedigree with that of others we suppress the truer true upon which nature exists. By ignoring and avoiding weakness, we become weak. The Apostle Paul, praying for the removal of the thorn in his flesh said, “[Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). One chapter later Paul says, “For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for” (2 Corinthians 13:9). He celebrates their “strength” while celebrating his weakness. It is in weakness that we discover what service really means. By celebrating other’s success and differences, we discover contentment in our frailty. Through attempting to make others better, we discover we are becoming better. When we refuse to participate in the socially accepted past-time of gossip, the pessimistic stance against the world turns optimistic. Seeking opportunities to put others in positions of glory, the peaceful glory holding up creation sings our song. Embracing our weakness, we partake with the glory of the Most High. Nothing becomes commonplace. Glory lifts up.