Years ago, priest and writer Henri Nouwen was serving as chaplain on a Dutch cruise ship making its way to Rotterdam. They were in a thick fog. Everyone was edgy and nervous as the ship crept along virtually blind in the water. The captain was pacing back and forth, anxiously trying to get through the fog without slamming into anything.
Suddenly, in mid-pace, the captain collided with his chaplain. Pre-occupied and stressed, he cursed the chaplain and ordered him off the bridge. The chaplain, hurt and embarrassed, was about to leave when suddenly the captain turned to him.
“Wait a minute,” the captain said. “Stay here. This might be the only time I really need you.”
The experience became for Nouwen a parable of the modern church. He writes, “There was a time, not too long ago, when we felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are standing in the way. That is our lonely position: We are powerless, on the side … not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.”
This position on the side is a source of great discomfort for many people of faith. There are those who believe that God’s faithful should be captains of all reality. They believe that people of faith should be in charge.
The idea is at least as old as Constantine. You will recall him as the Roman ruler who made Christianity the official faith of the Empire. This dubious gift that Constantine provided allowed Christianity to dominate the Western world for 1,500 years.
These days, following Nouwen’s parable, we are on the side. We are deposed rulers, stripped of our divine prerogatives. We have been reduced to the status of mere citizens in a body politic where one idea is regarded as good as the next. We’re second stringers, benched during the big game, watching it all from the sidelines.
At least, that’s how it feels.
But here’s the rub. The church was never intended to rule–that’s why we have never been very good at it. Our true identity has to do with serving, healing souls, and reconciliation. It’s that old taste of power in our mouths that keeps us from embracing our proper vocation.
Being on the side is exactly where we belong. It’s where we started from, and the place from which we have always done our best work. Being on the side puts us where hurting people are found, the rejected, the despised and the lonely. On the side is where Jesus was going every time he turned to his disciples and said, “Follow me.”
In our culture, being on the side means second rate, second string. But that is not true from the perspective of faith. Jesus stands with us on the side and reminds us that the last shall be first, that humble servants are the ones who are truly great, that sinners get into see God ahead of the self-righteous, and the powerful will be thrown down.
Not that any of this should come as a surprise. Jesus said repeatedly that his kingdom was not of this world. If it was not for him, what made us think it would be for us?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.