The Construction of Utopias
One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches.
It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.
A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.
Doing the Work Before the Work
In his highly insighful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:
Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.
His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.
I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.
Excellence in Biblical Terms
While written almost 30 years ago, this poll of Christian leaders provides some interesting fodder for how to define excellence from a Biblical perspective:
What, then, does excellence—as it is described in the Bible—mean for the Christian? Influential Christian scholars and leaders replied to this question in a recent survey that I administered. Their answers are enlightening.
Following out to its end the intrinsic character of a quality, event, or mode of being, and seeing this pursuit in light of…the resurrection—that all things cohere in Christ.—Martin Marty
Doing all to the glory of God, which requires my best.— Hudson Armerding
Discovering who we are as Christ’s people, and committing ourselves to live out his radical servant lifestyle within the body of Christ—Larry Richards
There is no such thing as Christian excellence, just as there is no Christian hamburger; but a Christian will strive for excellence (i.e., integrity) with every task he attempts. It could mean making the very best hamburger you can— with plenty of onion, tomato, and pickle.—Haddon Robinson
Wholism, or seeing the whole of life as subject to the lordship of Jesus Christ: may be at the core of Christian excellence. And at the center of such wholism is wholesomeness.—David Moberg
All of these definitions focus on important elements of what excellence means for the Christian: glorifying God, being servants, seeing things in light of the resurrection, having integrity, and being wholistic and wholesome in attitude. Thus, “excellence” is an umbrella term.
Excellence, the Jeremiah Way
In Jeremiah it is clear that the excellence comes from a life of faith, from being more interested in God than in self, and has almost nothing to do with comfort or esteem or achievement. Here is a person who lived life to the hilt, but there is not a hint of human pride or worldly success or personal achievement in the story. Jeremiah arouses my passion for a full life. At the same time he firmly shuts the door against attempts to achieve it through self-promotion, self-gratification or self-improvement. It is enormously difficult to portray goodness in an attractive way; it is much easier to make a scoundrel interesting…
How do I stimulate an appetite for excellence without feeding at the same time a selfish determination to elbow anyone aside who gets in the way? Insistent encouragement is given by many voices today for living a better life. I welcome the encouragement. But the counsel that accompanies the encouragement has introduced no end of mischief into our society, and I am in strenuous opposition to it. The counsel is that we can arrive at our full humanness by gratifying our desires. It has been a recipe for misery for millions.
Excellence vs. Flawlessnes
Like so many people, I once associated excellence with flawlessness. The excellent person never makes mistakes, is always consistent and confident, and is continuously applauded by scores of imperfect, jealous admirers.
My misconception produced guilt and disappointment as my shortcomings stubbornly lingered like barnacles on a pier. The gnawing thought persisted: I was destined to a life of ineptitude. As a result, I was bound to fail myself, others, and God. Before I could become fulfilled, some thing had to occur. Either I must drastically improve my level of performance, or I must take another look at the meaning of excellence.
…Excellence is difficult to define. But we all certainly recognize it when we observe it in others. And we are refreshed and reassured when we witness it. What is excellence? It’s a certain style of life, a manner of living, a bigness of spirit, a point of view, a frame of reference, a set of priorities, a hierarchy of values, an admirable self imposed standard.
Success vs. Excellence, A Poem
Success is the key they hand you when they like you.
It doesn’t matter why.
They just give you the key that unlocks an upscale condo,
triggers the powerful purr of your new Mercedes,
and accesses the executive washroom.
It s what they give to you.
Excellence is another brand of brazil nut.
It’s what’s within you.
It’s what you do
that stretches mind and muscle.
They’ll hand you success when your ratings are up,
your sales soar, or when the eager masses
plunk down their grubby bucks to buy your stuff.
And they’ll snatch success away at daybreak.
Success loves its one-night stands at the Ritz.
But never expect it to say, I do.
Success is a day-tripper and a tease.
Success’ll forget you.
Excellence endures when the crowd moves on.
Success vs. Excellence (Part II)
Success offers a hoped-for future goal.
Excellence provides a striven-for present standard.
Success bases our worth on a comparison with others.
Excellence gauges our value by measuring us against our own potential.
Success grants its rewards to the few, but is the dream of the multitudes.
Excellence is available to all living beings, but is accepted by the special few.
Success focuses its attention on the external—becoming the tastemaker for the insatiable appetites of the conspicuous consumer.
Excellence beams its spotlight on the internal spirit— becoming the quiet, but pervasive, conscience of the conscientious who yearn for integrity.
Success engenders fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Excellence brings us to reality, and a deep gratitude for the affirming promise of the rainbow.
Success encourages expedience and compromise, which prompts us to treat people as means to our ends.
Excellence cultivates principles and consistency, which ensure that we will treat all persons as intrinsically valuable ends—the apex of our heavenly Father’s creation.