There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message: What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician.
Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive. It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation. We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.
As children, we compete for attention from our parents. As school children we look for the teachers affirmation and praise. As students at universities and colleges we try to stand out from the pack academically, or perhaps socially. As employees we want the boss to see what we do, take our ideas to heart, offer us credit for a job well done. The list goes on… even in the church we want to be noticed ….(more on this shortly)
But when I was reading this post this morning, it got me thinking about the fact that these words were written over 30 years ago. We are more ‘me first’ society now than we were then. When Henri Nouwen wrote these words, it was pre internet, pre Twitter, pre Facebook, pre Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. I am convinced that if he were writing this today the opening paragraph would include a reference to Facebook, and Twitter and all other forms of social media which are designed to give the user immediate feedback. If we as a people were worried about being known, praised, or admired when Nouwen wrote this, we are completely obsessed with it today. Our obsession is feed with a powerful mix of media that is focused on self. A quick check of Facebook and Twitter reveals a powerful tale. It’s all about the ‘likes’ of posts and the ‘favouriting’ of tweets. Write something on the wall and see how many people like it. How many comments or retweets is a measure of how interesting the comment is. Now I am writing this knowing full well that you might look at my 1100 ‘friends’ on Facebook or my 500 Twitter ‘followers’ and say – “You’re one to talk!” That criticism would be fair. I along, with many in the world, am drawn into the madness that Nouwen writes about. I, like many of you, have tried to keep ‘in the loop’ by using these new mediums, and I like many of you get seduced into the worrying about praise, affirmation, and admiration. The truth is, we can all try to convince ourselves otherwise about our tweets and our Facebook posts, but they play into the same larger picture that Nouwen writes about – our need for affirmation, attention, and praise. I, like many of us, need to be reminded that all of this modern ‘affirmation’ is really artificial and feeds into a larger narrative that is quite apart from the way of life which God calls us to. Knowing this is a reality should offer me, and many others, the ability to use these tools for the glory of God instead of the glory of …. well you get the idea.
Whether we are on social media or not is not really the point of my post today. We all at some point or another, buy into the notion that being noticed is what matters. It is indeed a function of low self-esteem or a lack of confidence. I would add it is easy to forget how beloved we are when we are bombarded with constant messages to the contrary. But we must remember that as a people of God we are taught something quite different. We follow Jesus who taught the way of humility and service. Nouwen is correct when he asserts that ‘real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive.’ It is very much the spirit that we are called to display in all that we do and say. We are a people seek and serve for the sake of building a new and renewed community of God. We seek to do this not for our own notoriety but because we want to transform hearts and minds and offer peace, love, healing, forgiveness, and hope in our world.
But this need to be noticed and be praised has an impact on the church as well. There are those who need to be noticed for what they do in our communities. Think about it. There are those who march through our communities, often carrying a big stick, seeking to be noticed, and get quite angry and petulant when they are not given the appropriate credit. We know from experience however that the people who have the biggest impact on the lives of others and on the church are often not those who are most noticed in our communities. While I write this I think of many people in the communities that I have been a part of who have been tremendous witnesses to the love and hope that can be offered in a Christian community. Some of them have been ordained and some of them have not. Some are women, some are not. Some had status in their work world, some had none. But all had no need to be noticed for what they offered – they just offered it in love. The most influential people in my life have been people who have quietly, humbly, dutifully, confidently, and purposefully, have shown me their creativity, their love, their mercy, their kindness and the beloved work of art that they are without the need for praise or notoriety. I will venture to guess that is true for you as well.
We all from to time can fall into thinking that we need to be noticed to matter. We all at times feel the need to be affirmed, praised, or recognized. The real challenge is to be able to recognize when we are succumbing to the pressures of the world we live in and remind ourselves that our real joy will come from confidently doing what we have been called to do and doing it well, without need for someone else’s stamp of approval. Our best moments will have no ‘like’ icon to click and there will be no way for anyone to ‘favourite’ what we have done. Our best moments will be defined by deep humility. The God whom we serve has no ‘like’ icon. God’s response is beyond a ‘like’ – it is beyond a ‘favourite.’ God’s response is to love us for our humble and patient, perseverance and love – can’t get better affirmation than that.