I first realized I was “that guy” in our neighborhood at my daughter’s pirate-themed fifth birthday party. I suspect many youth ministry people grow up to become “that guy.” This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The years we spend active with teenagers develop a set of skills, that when exercised with small children, in particular, small children with overprotective parents, make us quite popular with those children and considerably less so with their parents.
We had recently moved from a street where we had the only children on the block to a neighborhood with at least 30 kids in our children’s age group. Much to our chagrin, every one of those kids and their keepers converged on our home for my daughter’s party-the parade from both directions was quite a sight. My wife quickly disappeared out the back to the store for twenty more hotdogs while I attempted to appear nonplussed at the incursion. One neighbor looked over my backyard and remarked flatly, “Disneyland wasn’t this crowded last summer.”
In less time than it took to light the candles on my five year old’s cake, I made a rookie mistake. While on grill duty I shouted, “Who wants the first hot dog?” It was like the scene from a movie. Time briefly went to slow motion as thirty over-eager kids dropped what they were doing, turned, and began to run toward me with arms in the air shouting, “I do!” Unfortunately, time shifted back to full speed as the horde accelerated toward the grill. Elbowing for position around the blazing grill, thirty kids shouted, “Me first! Me first! Me first!”
The other parents cringed, imagining gory injuries and expensive lawsuits.
As for me, the danger was lost in my glee at discovering I had the ability to incite an elfish riot. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the novelty of this newly discovered skill: “Who wants to hit the piñata first?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”
“We are playing freeze tag. Who wants to be it first?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”
“Who wants the first cup cake?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”
“Me first” is cute and funny with five-year olds…although apparently not as cute as I found it to be, since it would take the better part of a decade to convince my neighbors that I actually am a grown up. But regardless of how “me first” appears in a group of kindergarteners, looking out for numero uno is most un-adorable in adults.
“Me first” comes so easily, though. Self-protection is a powerful human motivator – perhaps the first hard-wired human inclination. “Me first” is, well, normal. The interesting thing is that when we follow what is “normal,” when we go “me first,” we don’t insure our thriving at all. We actually diminish ourselves. Rather than protect us, self-preservation, it turns out, shrinks our lives. And we end up with a life that inspires neither us, nor anyone else.
A good example of “me first” occurs in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel in an incident known as “the healing by the pool.” The short version is this: Traveling rabbi Jesus walks into town for a religious conference with his (at least) twelve students. With a seventy-mile journey on foot behind them, they head to the city well to cool off. Jesus wanders into the pool house, a place frequented by the sick and homeless. The water in the pool was actually the run-off from the pool Jesus belonged at, the nice folk’s pool, immediately uphill from this one. At the pool, Jesus runs into a crippled guy, apparently squatting on a prime panhandling location. The guy uses his rehearsed speech on Jesus who tells the handicapped man to get up and walk. This he does. (Jesus has this inexplicable ability to speak to disease and death and the weather and they obeyed him…and the witnesses report this with little commentary other than to make sure that we know that they didn’t understand it either at the time.)
Anyway, the man who hadn’t walked for nearly four decades gathers his stuff and leaves so quickly that he doesn’t get Jesus’ name. The man heads for the temple, the normal place one would go to re-enter society. On the way in, a group of pastors hassle the guy for carrying his stuff on the Sabbath – they want to theologize rather than thank God…religious people having problems is nothing new. These pastors want to know who is responsible for the “illegal” healing, but the newly mobile man cannot give a name since he never bothered to get it. Then Jesus finds the man again in the temple…don’t get me started on how weird it is that a man can receive the use of his legs and not stop to get the name of the person who healed him. Jesus travels with an entourage, meaning he isn’t exactly inconspicuous, but Jesus is the one who is interested in continuing the relationship, not the other way around. When Jesus finds the man, he tells him to “stop sinning.” We have no clearly stated reason as to what that was about, but the man, continuing his peculiar behavior, immediately goes back to the religious leaders and rats Jesus out. Then this man uses the legs Jesus healed to walk out of history, never to be heard from again.
Think about it: A guy gets healed…then just walks away. It sounds sort of “Me first!” doesn’t it?
The religious leaders are worried about the theology of the event. “Me first!”
And then the healed man turns over the name of his healer to the authorities. “Me first!”
There is no evidence that our unnamed man ever followed Jesus. No evidence of any heart-change to go with his change of mobility. No evidence that he gave as much as a simple, “Thanks, bro.” There is no indication that he did anything other than use his legs to wander away. He simply did the “normal,” expected thing. The “me first” thing. The saddest part is what could have been had our man not been so self-absorbed. Jesus was about to commission eleven scared dudes to start a revolution of love, a revolution that would conquer the greatest empire the world had ever known in under 300 years, and our man could have been in on the ground floor.
Did you notice what happened? Both our man and the religious leaders turned a potentially world-altering event into something to be insulated against. They knew what most religious people eventually realize: If you let Jesus get too close, he will mess up your life. I think everyone in this story was trying to keep Jesus at arms length, lower the bar…make Jesus manageable. They defined Jesus down so that they could be religious enough but carefully maintain their position in the driver’s seat of life – you know, “Me first!”
CS Lewis said, “We are like kids in the slums content to make mud pies while a feast on holiday by the sea is being offered.” We simply lack vision for what our lives could be – we cannot see past “Me first!”
Have you noticed there are no great stories of “me first”? No fairy tales of self-preservation. No great myths of the self-serving. No super-heroes of the self-absorbed. That is because the secret of a great life is not “me first.” The secret to a great life is spelled m.e.t.h.i.r.d.
We learn this from Jesus who advised a seeker to “love God first and love your fellows as you love yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). Jesus, who was combining several earlier wisdom statements of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 & Leviticus 19:18), apparently considered this “me third” business an important enough message that he said it more than once (Matthew 22:34-40) – something great teachers do with important lessons.
Why is it so important to love God first? First of all, Jesus is a God willing to step into where the world says he doesn’t belong…to set free captives too crippled to realize their bondage, who chases the wanderers and frees from both religiosity and secular selfishness-who brings mercy and redemption when no one was asking – O, what a Savior.
But even more, if the Jesus event is true, then to be on God’s mission, to be God first and other’s second is what you and I were made for. It is the key to finding our great “Why?”
So what of you?
-Have you lowered the bar on your expectations of God?
-Have you forfeited divinely-given dreams of the impact your life might make for God?
What is normal…what is natural, is “me first.” But a great life, a really stellar life, one that you and others are inspired by is lived me third.
So love God first. Love others second. And for sure love “me.” Just love me third.