“More to the right!” “No, go left!” “From where I stand it looks like you just need to center it.”
We are on a youth-group service trip. The shouting isn’t about politics. It is about locating rafters. We’re standing on a table, fastening corrugated tin to the ceiling of an old shed. Now and then, we miss the rafters. The tin’s ridges seem to play tricks on our vision. Perhaps our perspective is influenced by where we are standing.
Then it happens. The screws keep missing. We start self-assuredly giving directions to the person with the drill. We are all confident we have the true perspective.
Finally, we remember that some of the rafters have large notches in them. The truth was hidden. Whether the screws were on the right, the left or in the center, they were all hitting thin air.
We laugh and think about how this is like church. We all are sure we have the truth, but we fail to see from each other’s perspectives. Sometimes we are all wrong.
The evening Bible study is from Romans 12. We may not hear all of the passage, but the word “haughty” in verse 16 resonates: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty. . . . Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
We know how easy it is to feel we are the wisest.
Paul, who earlier was so sure of his truth that he was killing Jesus-followers, is now cautioning others about the illusion of self-centered wisdom. He is writing to the house churches of Rome, hoping to keep arrogance from dividing them.
Romans was written before tin roofs, before selfies and online self-promotion but not before cultural conflicts and rallying cries of greatness. After all, the Roman Empire was the greatest.
Paul is writing to churches that are a mix of Gentile converts and Jewish followers. Reading between Paul’s lines, we hear their self-assured conflicting perspectives. We imagine the Jews criticizing an “anything goes” diet. We imagine the Roman converts wondering about the backwardness of those from Judea. Jews could sound morally superior. Gentiles could view themselves as more enlightened, more entitled.
Who is strong? Who is weak? Are those who cling to fasting and Sabbath regulations strong or weak? This depends on one’s perspective.
The Roman world rewarded pride and arrogance. Paul is asking for a major shift in perspective. Instead of being controlled by desires aimed at greatness, Jesus-followers are to be motivated by love, a love that is not condescending, a love that looks out for others. Paul is asking for a countercultural shift.
Being Jesus-followers today still requires a radical shift from cultural norms. Our society feeds our desire to be great. Our culture teaches us to seek recognition. We pose for selfies and post bravado about our great lives. We admire ruthless entrepreneurs, arrogant politicians and narcissistic celebrities. Self-denial and humility sound outrageous.
Where we stand influences our perspective. The ridges and expectations of our society play tricks on our vision. What is important becomes muddled.
We want the church to move in the right direction — right, according to our viewpoint. Can we pause the shouting enough to notice the hidden notches, the hidden truth?
Let’s find ways to stand on the same table and move toward seeing with generous love, move toward replacing arrogance with humility, move toward living countercultural selflessness.
You never know what you’re going to learn while putting up a tin ceiling. You never know what surprises are ahead for a church community that moves toward careful listening, toward countercultural humility and unselfish radical love. Let’s keep expecting love to prevail.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.