I read a book about the Byzantine Empire a few years ago. I’m not over it. Periodically, I waft off into a little lesson on Greek emperors. That behavior does not make me popular. But I just instinctively do it sometimes because I am ruminating on the lessons their lives are teaching me. Every leader can learn great cautionary tales from history. Don’t you wish the present leaders of the U.S. would would seriously listen to a few tales? One lesson they could learn from the Byzantine emperors is this: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.
Builders and spenders
As I read the intriguing, pared-down history of the Byzantine Empire, focused on the emperors, I was interested to see that one way I could categorize them was as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade. Their successors regularly lived off or squandered all they had built up. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.
Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich, rich, rich. People are lamenting the lack of jobs when the unemployment rate is 4.1% (Spain ~ 16%, Congo ~ 46%). Everyone thinks they deserve to be rich as their birthright! The 1% recently harvested the profitability reflected in the low unemployment rate with their “tax reform.” They are spenders. Maybe the whole U.S. Empire is dying. Maybe a new emperor will save it. But right now we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.
I think it might be hard to imagine building something in the United States (like Circle of Hope in all its manifestations) because it has become customary to train everyone to manage the wealth of others or the wealth they expected to receive [Here are some options for you!] [Here you go in case you are in elementary school.] I know many people consider managing and increasing wealth as a productive enterprise. I think that is lying to oneself. Wendell Berry starts off one of my favorite poems by revealing that lie again.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. — Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Berry, excerpt
He goes on to say that we should get in touch with God and the earth so we can be and can do something real — like grow something, like build a church. Churches seem to have a lot of people trained to perform Christian musicals and create weekly variety shows on Sunday, but do we train each other to build practical things? (I have to say this, even though I love a good musical from almost any source!). I run into people living like what is built is there for them to manage or perform rather than living like they were meant to build something useful or beautiful or new — like they are creating with the Creator. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. I think the church trains them to do it. Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And, ultimately, the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.
We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate through us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us — we’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.
Five practical ways to build something
The following are simple things that might help us shake off the empire mentality that stalks us and help us find some fresh new ways to see ourselves in the world as it is now. As Berry suggests:
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
I doubt that my suggestions will seem like we are losing our minds altogether. But they might start something fresh building.
1) Be a friend. The foremost and everyday discipline of a builder is: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the Kingdom of God. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the Kingdom are crumbling.
2) Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.
Right now, God help us, we are considering buying the biggest mess we have ever bought in the neediest neighborhood at the highest price we’ve ever paid. It is the building in the picture above at 115 W. Chelten. We may not decide to do it, but just thinking about it has already started to reshape us and inspire us. I talked about it all through snow day and I am pretty refreshed right now, and impressed with the leaders who are daring to dig into the idea.
3) Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us should pitch in, not just the leaders. Please don’t say “that’s not my job” too often. It is not the leaders’ church. Everyone has the job of being a builder; Jesus resides in each of us and all of us.
I am certainly not saying, “Get busy you slackers!” Our church is a beehive of activity. LOTS of us love to pitch in. The newest congregation we just hived off is the one with the audacity to consider a huge building! All the congregations can tell stories about what they have been building, lately, this week! (Maybe they will tell them in the comments).
As far as attitudes that ground being a builder and not just a spender go:
4) Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.
5) Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow? That’s a Christian question.
Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just “get ours” and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the empire and it certainly does not work in the church.