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Standing Out

October 23rd, 2008

…If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:16)

All Zach Sharples wanted to do was to support his favorite baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays. So after they beat the White Sox in the first round of the playoffs, Zach went out and got himself a Rayhawk, the signature Mohawk many of the Rays players are wearing for their playoff run.

Just a haircut, right? What could go wrong?

Nothing, until the twelve-year-old went to school with his new ‘do. He was told that his Rayhawk violated the district dress code, which forbids hairstyles that are “a distraction.” Zach was immediately sent to in-school suspension – apparently until he shaves off the Rayhawk.

‘Cause, you know, Mohawked twelve-year-olds are one of society’s real problems.

Maybe Zach’s principal was a White Sox fan?

All Zach was doing, of course, was identifying with his team – participating in what his team was doing in the only way he could. Wearing a t-shirt or a hat wasn’t enough for him, so Matt went with something a little more noticeable and a little harder to change. Trouble is that in doing so, he made himself a target.

Maybe we don’t think about it this way – I’d be kind of surprised if you do, frankly – but biblically speaking, wearing the label “Christian” is something like wearing an unusual haircut. In apostolic days, the church stood out in the world. In identifying themselves radically with Jesus, they often found themselves differing just as radically with the world around them: its gods, its morality, its economics, and its priorities. Like Zach, they made themselves targets.

Peter and John told the Sanhedrin that they’d obey God, not the council, and continue speaking about Jesus. (Acts 4:19) Years later, Peter would remind Christians scattered all over the world that they would encounter people who would “think it strange that you do not plunge into” the sin that is prevalent in the human condition, and that those people would “heap abuse” on them. (1 Peter 4:4) Both Peter and the writer of Hebrews would use the term “foreigners” to describe the church’s experience in the world – people who can’t be truly at home and can’t truly fit in. People who will – from time to time, at least – have to live with being misunderstood, unappreciated, disrespected, treated with hostility, and even threatened.

Jesus said it would be that way, of course: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15:18) It makes so much sense when he puts it that way; if the world didn’t think Jesus talked right, walked right, or looked right, then to the degree that we follow him the world won’t care much for us, either.

Something strange happened, though. The church got respectable. It went from a small, marginalized sect, to a protected minority, to the majority. Along the way, it went from powerless to powerful, poor to wealthy, disparaged to respected. We even went from persecutor to persecuted. Not incidentally, we started to lose our voice and lose our way, until we became more concerned with building our institution in this world than with speaking and acting like people whose true home was elsewhere.

Francis of Assisi saw it perfectly. As the story goes, he was visiting the Pope in Rome, who took the poor monk on a tour of the great wealth on display in the Roman churches. Smiling at Francis, the Pope is supposed to have said, “See, Francis? No longer can the church say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” To which Francis is supposed to have responded, “This is true, my lord, but then neither can it say, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”

Francis got it, I think. Somewhere the church went from Mohawk to businessman’s short. And when we lose our distinctiveness from the world around us, we lose our ability to tell them about the healing and wholeness Jesus brings. To identify with Jesus – to really bear his name, as Peter puts it – requires that we stand out. Requires that we be a little different, not for the sake of being different, but simply because really being with Jesus is an extraordinarily transformative experience that can’t really be overlooked or ignored. Sometimes the people around us won’t pay much attention. Sometimes they’ll like what they see. And sometimes, identifying with Jesus will make us targets. However that all may come out, Peter’s exhortation holds up: “do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

I know, sometimes it’s easier to duck your head and try not to draw any fire. Most of us only need to find ourselves in one or two uncomfortable conversations, or on the receiving end of just a few barbs or jokes, before we see how tempting it is to just blend in. I’m a minister – just answering the question, “What do you do for a living?” often draws silence and ends conversations. I’m learning, though, that the Holy Spirit often works best in such situations. And then again, if even Jesus couldn’t win over everyone, why do I feel that I should be able to?

I don’t know if Zach Sharples should have shaved off his Rayhawk or not. Last I hear, he hadn’t. But the last I heard of him, he wasn’t in suspension, either. He was on the field at Tropicana Park in Tampa with the Rays players during batting practice before game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Seems that Rays outfielder Johnny Gomes heard about Zach’s troubles and wanted to do something for him to make it all worthwhile. He got to visit with the team, get some autographs and pictures, and was presented with a bat autographed by the team. Someone asked him if he was going to shave his Rayhawk.

“Not until they win the World Series,” Zach answered.

I know it’s not easy to stand out sometimes. It can be frustrating. Painful. Even heartbreaking. Identifying with Jesus can mean the loss of friends, trouble at work or school, even strife in families. I think, though, that we’ll find that the approval of our Lord will make it all worthwhile. “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ,” Peter says, “so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” “You will grieve,” Jesus promises, “But your grief will turn to joy.” (John 16:20)

So wear his name proudly, like Zach Sharples wears his Rayhawk, and don’t let it shake you when people don’t get it. Keep telling them about Jesus, and showing them, and maybe they will. And, if not, know that your Lord is smiling and fingering the scars he bears.

Just wait until the day he invites you to be with him.


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