Dousing the flames of hypocrisy: The Big Value of Small Ideas

The world has turned on big ideas, of course.  Lincoln ended slavery in America.  MLK gave birth to civil rights.  Martin Luther brought the Reformation.  Plato.  Augustine.  Hitler.  Pol Pot.  Lenin. Marx.  Like the ideas or don’t; they’ve changed the course of the world.

And there are lots of other ideas as well, tens of thousands of “medium ideas” that have been shaping forces in still significant ways:  Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers.  Bill Hybels and the ‘seeker friendly church’.  Bill Gates and software.  Steve Jobs.  Google.  Facebook.  Henry Ford and the automobile.  Human flight.  Eisenhower’s national highway project, Earth Day, and countless others at global, national, and local levels that have been impactful for better worse, ranging from multi-level marketing scams and schemes to remarkable non-profits whose intent it is to change the world, like International Justice Mission.

The thing all big ideas share in common is the notion of inviting others to step into a story “bigger than their own ‘small’ story”.  Christianity in the macro sense, and local churches in the micro sense do this too, as they (we) should, because our founder, Jesus, had the biggest idea of all – the idea that the eternal reign of hope, beauty, justice, and peace is inevitable, so let’s get on with living into it now – becoming the presence of God’s good reign through our daily living as we bring hope to the hopeless in Jesus’ name.  This is, of course, good and right and important.  And yet….

I sometimes wonder if we’re not putting the cart before the horse, or even trying to bring mobility to the cart without even having the horse.  There’s a huge risk out there among people who are living for big ideas.  You find it in Taliban fundamentalists whose computers are filled with porn and Catholic priests who’ve been guilty of pedophilia.  You find it in health foodists who covertly eat McNuggets, and environmentalists who speak inconvenient truths while residing in enormous, energy sucking homes.  It’s the Marxist who dines on caviar while the masses stand in line for a loaf of bread.  It’s the hawks who talk about duty and sacrifice, while pulling strings to exempt their own children from military service.   What’s going on?

Big ideas become a danger fuel at times, feeding these wrong fires:

Hypocrisy is so common among idealists as to nearly be expected these days.  Any of us can become convinced that our commitment to the big idea is all we need to live well, which of course is, to put it mildly, a pile of dung.   It will always be true that the very first thing we need to do in order to live well is:  live well.  Beyond that, the 2nd thing we need to is live well, and the 3rd, and 4th, and it really never ends, because when it does, our success with the big idea will create a mindset that exempts us from the very thing our big idea is about.  It’s no good.  Life’s too short to be that misaligned.

Vicarious righteousness is a shade different than hypocrisy, and applies when we think that by contributing to big ideas, with some money, or maybe even some time, we’re suddenly deeply identified with that big idea.  I give a few hundred bucks to some cause such as International Justice Mission and, presto, I’m part of the solution!  Yes.  But…  if I continue buying cotton T-shirts at 3 for $10 down there at Wal-Mart, I’m still part of the problem, and probably a bigger part of the problem than the solution.   If a preach about environmental stewardship and justice (and I have), ride my bike to work (and I often do) and then gorge myself on McDonald’s junk (yes… I have), I’m still part of the problem.

Distraction is the third fire wrongly fueled by our big ideas and causes because our love of big ideas can easily overwhelm our much needed commitment to personal integrity.   In a word, we’re too busy and preoccupied with changing the world to ever change the sheets on the bed, or cook healthy food, or enjoy a walk in the forest.  In the end, our lives become hopeless shells of what they could and should be, having been consumed by our need to do something great.

All these fires can be doused by one simple change:  I must make sure that aligning my actual life with my values is the first, and highest pursuit of my life.  If I’m trying to align with the big idea that is Christianity, that means taking Jesus’ teaching about loving others, simplifying my life, living generously, practicing hospitality, and crossing social divides must become values expressed in my daily living, not just my checkbook or my church’s teaching.  It’s one thing to talk about giving stuff away.  It’s another thing entirely to actually do it.

The problem with small ideas, especially for visionaries, is that they don’t bring a big adrenalin hit.  There’s no big thrill is making my bed, or taking the time to cook a healthy meal about which nobody will ever read, or inviting a few people over to enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation.  It can all seem so unimportant in the light of world hunger, vast injustice, Syria, terror, and corporate greed.  There’s no time for such low level living!  There are wars to fight!

Yes.  But first… pray.  First…get enough sleep.  First… begin to live the kind of life that represents what you say you believe in.  First… relax and rest in the arms of Christ.  After all, that is, more than anything, what he wants to offer you.  Out from that soil of integrity, your calling and involvement with big ideas will come – but now in God’s scale, freed from your Messiah complex, and at rest with the notion that if you’re going to play a part in any big idea, you’ll do it better because you’ve learned to give attention to the small ideas that make up daily living.

3 thoughts on “Dousing the flames of hypocrisy: The Big Value of Small Ideas

  1. Richard – this was thoughtful and thought provoking. And if I was really paying attention, I now have to do more than just think about it… well played.

  2. Thanks, Richard. Good job with the content, imho. It is useful to note that none of us can perform in all of these arenas and many of us cannot afford to fight these causes with our wallets. ie., I shop at WholeFoods these days, but when I was a widowed single home-schooling mom, I could never have afforded that bill. etc etc. But that is no reason to be fatalistic or depressed.
    Resting in the sovereignty of God and giving your most strategic attention to prayer are the MOST ACCESSIBLE forms of alignment across the broad spectrum of the family of faith. And please, don’t just pray for your own needs or causes. Remember Elijah and the 7000. Consider that what is problematic for you is also problematic for multitudes like you. Even for folks who are not like you. Today. Pray for THEM.
    Play the part that you can. Take the next step. (Richard’s favorite theme.) Keep reaching for better alignment AND stay in the harness with those things that God has placed upon YOUR heart. You can’t fix everything. s/He will. In Divine Time. Not mine or yours. Still, the faith story is rife with examples to show us that PRAYER CHANGES THINGS.
    Does God change the Divine Timetable because I/we pray? Not according to what we understand about Omniscience, but s/He changes our awareness and the quality of our commitment. s/He also cultivates/strengthens our faith and our practice in the process.
    Lastly, across the broad spectrum of economic and cognitive abilities, people need GUIDANCE to align the TRUE VALUES with their daily patterns and decisions. I’ve known many pastors who teach that “you don’t really believe or value… or else you wouldn’t be living like that.” CATEGORICALLY, IT’S NOT TRUE! People can really BELIEVE something in their core and still be oblivious to HOW *their daily lives are inconsistent with their CORE BELIEFS and TRUE VALUES. Still harder, when you are in the pressure cooker of meeting the demands of daily life, is being able to visualize a better pattern, one that fulfills the nurture of those values.
    *They could also be deferring, but that is the topic for a whole different set of discussions…

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